Gunslinger Girl Short Story: The Gifts

Jean Croce never had a problem with crowds, not even on the crowded Romano Fiori, though most of the shoppers were more looking for famous faces than the arrangements. This was not his usual vendor, but the owners of Pastor and Tjader evidently decided to start closing for Christmas Eve. With his height, stoney expression and ever-present dark sunglasses, citizens of Rome and tourists alike subconsciously stepped aside as he pondered the small selection of non-holiday flowers.

Taking care to keep his overcoat dry, he gently selected a spray of hyacinths and snowdrop blossoms from an antique vase. Again, the crowds parted for the tall, blond man as he approached the register. Like everything else in this store, it was aged and well-maintained.

And did not take charge cards.

Jean nodded, his somber errand tamping his normal irritation at these inefficiencies. As the transaction closed, a flash of that special, that hated cyan hue of the Northern separatist movement reflected in the polished steel register caused him to spin around, his hand halfway to his chest.

"Signore?" The clerk, a man too young to be the owner, laid a hand on the open register drawer.

Jean snapped his head back, his mouth a thin line, but his glare hidden by his sunglasses. He slapped a €500 note and a business card with a neatly-penned address to the family crypt. "Deliver it here."

The clerk's eyes could not wander from the banknote. "And your change?"

Through gritted teeth he said, "Buon natale." He rushed off, shouldering past people too slow to step aside.

The cashier smiled broadly and hurriedly swept up the note. The cash register's bell bade Jean good fortune.

Ξ§§§Ξ

"Yes. Vincenzo Visentini. I'm near the intersection of Via Andrea Doria and Largo Trionfale. No, I don't want him taken down just yet. Just tell Rico to gear up and be ready to move."

Visentini glanced back, but twenty meters away Jean had already busied himself selecting apples from one of the many vendors at the market. Especially this busy, the chances of spotting someone following were low. Visentini was a lowly messenger for the separatist Padina underground. He was probably emulating what the bigger fish did; Jean doubted he knew how to tell if he was being followed.

On that thought, Jean moved to another stall, one such that obscured him from anyone along the previous row of stalls. He dropped a coin and crouched down to search for it, looking between the wooden legs for any sign of someone pushing his way through the crowd.

No one.

Standing up, he saw Visentini vanishing into the stairway of a metro stop. It was now his turn to shoulder his way through. Unlike the customers at the Romano Fiori, the people wandering the plaza here were not looking to snap some grainy photo of a celebrity, the shoppers here were studiously evaluating the wares for the Christmas Eve dinner. He pressed through the oblivious crowd.

"Permesso." "Permesso."

Hunched over, Jean Croce shoved his way through the crowd as politely as he could, for he saw the sign announce the train was due imminently. Still, he worried that Visentini, no matter how unskilled, would notice his approach. Ahead of him, the people surged toward the station, so Jean hoped he would be missed in the masses.

As the metro approached the station, he mounted the platform with the press of shoppers. He was at the edge of the platform, and careful of the yellow-and-black paint denoting the lip.

A cry carried louder than the automated announcements: "Cesare! Help! Stop the train!"

Jean straightened fully. Over the hats and scalps, following the direction every head was turned, he saw a child, a toddler, who had fallen onto the tracks. He stole a glance back at Visentini. The messenger was transfixed like the rest.

The metro driver sounded the horn and applied the brakes. Their squeal was still not enough to drown out the mother's cry.

Jean muttered an oath and dove for the child. He grabbed the baby by its clothes and continued to run across the track.

The train stopped short of where the baby had lain.

Everyone applauded. Including Visentini. He was spotted. Even if not as an agent of the SWA, Visentini would notice him following him.

The mother was elated to the point of tears. She hugged her baby as countless cell phones flashed and whirred. The police arrived, as well as a second metro operator. Jean, the mother, and the original operator had to give statements as the station's population crammed themselves into the train.

The doors closed as the police thanked everyone for their cooperation. Her eyes red but dry, the mother gave Jean a hug, which he received impassively. "Thank you, signore. Thank you."

"Buon natale."

The new driver waved from his booth and, with a quick ring of the bell, started off. Visentini was gone.

Ξ§§§Ξ

"Yes. He's gone. No big deal. He's just a small fish." Jean knew he was minimizing the loss to himself. Visentini was a messenger, but he was frequently photographed with bigger fish, ones Jean would dearly want to question. And then rid this world of.

On the other end of the phone, Priscilla Melori laughed. "Jean, he's on the A line. And -"

"And so are a hundred other people."

"Yes, but we know his brother lives close to the A line as well."

"You're a miracle worker, Priscilla."

"Only on Christmas."

He gave a perfunctory laugh. They arranged for Jean to meet Rico at the metro station.

The middle-school aged girl with her hair in a bob cut greeted Jean with a sunny grin. He pointed at her guitar case. "Is my spotting scope there as well?"

Self-consciously, she ran a hand through her hair slowly. "Uh, I wasn't sure what you needed, so I packed the binoculars and the night vision monocular, but not the big one. Is that okay?" Her smile was still present, but a slight tremor belied the expression.

Jean's jaw tensed, but he forced his voice to be even. "Let's be sure to pack it next time, shall we?" He took a deep breath. "The monocular should do."

Rico's smile returned to its original brightness. "Will do!"

Visentini's brother lived on the second floor of a walk-up facing a small city park. Jean picked the lock into the facing building on the other side of the park, then into the forward apartment, which was furnished but unoccupied.

"On vacation for Christmas?" Rico asked.

"I don't care. Get set up."

Rico nodded and handed Jean the binoculars.

"No, Rico. Monocular. I need the magnification more than I need the field of view."

With a tense hand, she corrected the mistake.

Jean grabbed it and started to scan. "They're all in the front. There's Vincenzo Visentini. And … two others. Male and female." He pulled out his cell phone and thumbed through the emails. "That's Ernesto Visentini. He's a nobody. Focus on his brother. Other woman is probably his … yes, wife." The youngish lady with black hair in a bun bounced into Ernesto's arms and they exchanged kisses.

"I have Vincenzo Visentini. Range two-fifty." She had assembled the Dragonuv SVD sniper rifle from the guitar case, shouldered it, and braced on the small dinner table. Like Jean, she was well back from the open window. From the outside no one could see them.

"Hold. Let's see what else turns up." Jean continued to scan the crowded dining room. The table was laid out for eight or so. The ceppo burned briskly in the fireplace. Another young lady, her dark hair pulled back in a practical and ordinary ponytail, her face warm with a smile, approached from a back room carrying a large platter. She set the dishes down and kissed Vincenzo twice, first on the cheek, then a lingering one lip-to-lip.

"I had baccala tonight, Jean."

"Focus, Rico. Focus." The unwanted memory of fourteen salted cod on a bed of greens stole into his mind. Mama. Pappa. Jose. Enrica. Him. And Sophia. Jean grimaced. His home was no different from this two Christmases ago. By the fireplace stood the tree. Just like home. He shook off the ghosts as if they were a chill.

A heavyset older man dressed in a blue suit and black tie strode in, arms laden with gaily wrapped packages. The family laughed and applauded.

"Who's that, Jean?"

"Focus." Jean rapidly thumbed through photos on his phone. "Bruno… multiple last names. He does cleanup for them."

"He's more important?"

"Yes. Track him, but hold. Let's see what they're up to."

An older woman, about the same age as Bruno, entered. Ernesto helped her out of the expensive fur coat, then took it to another room out of sight. Behind her bounded a boy, his brown hair a tousled mess, which his mom tried to tame. Another boy entered, timidly. Vincenzo lifted him proudly and presented him to Bruno, but the boy shied away from his touch.

"I have Bruno whatever-his-last-name-is. Wind at three to the right."

Jean watched them exchange hugs, gifts, and laughter. Memories poured into him. Sophia's laugh for once wasn't a call to battle, but instead warmed him. Pappa smiled, a rare gift. Enrica, dear Enrica, hugging him as he stood there stiffly, trying to reconcile the budding young lady there with the happy tomboy from his days before his Bosnia deployment.

For once he felt … peace?

"Rico. See the star on the top of the tree?"

"Uh…. Yeah. It's like the one we have in the cafeteria."

"That's the one. Change of target. Take out the star."

"Uh… I have the star. Take it?"

"Take it."

As the spent 7.62 x 54mm shell casing bounced on polished wooden floor, Jean whispered, "Buon natale."