The air was humid and suffocating in the underground train station and Affonso struggled to keep his composure.
Lisbon weather was particularly gruelling this time of the year and he hated being confined to the dark passages with no sunshine and fresh air. His chosen line of work was lucrative and never short of excitement, but it often meant that he had no choice in locations and had to go where he could find the best clientele. His bank account was a rude reminder that he still lacked the necessary start-up capital to strike out on his own. There had been sufficient offers to go into partnerships or franchises with minimum overhead costs and maximum profit margin, but he had something to prove to the community of elders. By hook or by crook he was going to become a self-made millionaire before his 40th birthday and not owe anybody a single cent. His father had once told him that if he dared to dream, he might as well dream big so that the effort would be worth it. Papa was right.
After the two-hour wait, Fonz, as he was known on the streets, decided that his chosen location for the day was a mistake and decided to explore something further down the dark tunnels. His young informants had whispered in his hear last night about a new Gypsy colony that was growing in the underground and had settled in the abandoned aqueducts where the police force was too lazy to look during summer. They would move again next month, but for now they were guaranteed “homes” and could at least put the children to sleep for a few hours without worrying about being chased away. Fonz frowned at the putrid smell that assaulted his nostrils when he walked along the tracks. The darkness covered up everything he could smell, and it was perhaps better that way. The sound of laughter and children shouting joyfully were his guide in he dark, and it wasn’t long before Fonz encountered the first families. The sight before him left him both speechless and fascinated, and for once he wished he was not involved with the mafia and was a social worker instead.
It was past midnight by the time he resurfaced above ground, shaking his head to adjust to the bright street lights and cobbled stones. Lisbon suddenly didn’t feel like home all of a sudden, not after having spent hours with the Gypsy community, getting to know their stories and scouting some new talent. Despite their meagre possessions, they cooked a delicious community meal that put some of the best restaurants in city to shame. They may be poor and live in squalor but the ability to produce a meal out of practically nothing was a talent he learned to admire immensely over the years. His grandmother had once told him “learn to save from the rich but to cook from the poor”. Maybe he should have listened to her more attentively while she was still alive and become a priest, like she wanted. She fought tooth and nail with grandfather to get him into the seminary but all his uncles had objected at the time, saying that he was needed in the streets to learn the ropes of the family business. Grandmother had argued that their representatives in the Vatican were dwindling fast and aging, fresh blood was needed now, young priests who would someday become cardinals to rule the coffers and manipulate the faith of the people with their charm and eloquence.
Sleep was impossible that night, with so many thoughts and plans rushing through his mind. Fonz strolled aimlessly through the streets and waited for daybreak. He knew of another community where he could get a good up of coffee before all the cafes opened. The African community of Lisbon always welcomed him with open arms for whatever reason. He depended on them as much as they on him, a profitable quid pro quo that had expanded over the years. There were some wonderful old grandmothers in the neighbourhood that reminded Fonz so much of his own grandmother, full of wisdom, experienced in the ways of the world, never short of advice on handling women, and best of all, they made the strongest cups of coffee that would easily raise the dead. He leaned against a wall and watched one of his father’s friends get his daily shoe polish at the corner. To all innocent bystanders this was a simple act of 15 minutes interaction between two men. Only The Family knew that the man getting his shoes cleaned was really reporting on the earnings of the night and what was next on the agenda. Fonz knew there were several containers arriving tomorrow at the port, one from Bogota, another from Nigeria, and the other two from Brazil and Laos. They would contain bales of cloth and household trinkets as cover-up, but The Polisher, as he was known among the arms dealers, was not known to conduct small insignificant business. He was grooming his two sons and Fonz to take over in the next five years, and Fonz was scared.
As Fonz dragged his weary body towards the cable car stop, he wondered whether he should return to the Gypsies underground for another meal. The thought of going home to his empty luxury penthouse was far less appealing than sitting around with the evening fire sharing dubious vodka and even more suspicious sausages. He could bring some food along with him, the butcher was still open, and so was the liquor store, who owed him the monthly protection money anyway. Perhaps it was the strong family bonds among these underground families that stuck together that appealed to Fonz’s spirit the most. They had no money to fight over, and the only business they could talk about was the stereotype pickpocketing and sale of roses. Their conversations ranged from politics to religion to neighbourhood gossip. The best part of the evening though, was when one of the grandmothers called all the children and told them one of the old folk tales.
It was his birthday the next day and Fonz decided it was time for some drastic changes in his life, come what may. As he stared at the large gate he felt his mobile phone buzz. Not bothering to even look at the caller ID, Fonz declined the call and stared out to the sea. It was time to call a family conference and inform the uncles of his plans. He wanted take a month off and visit all the suppliers around the globe to get a better feel for the international side of the business. He knew the Lisbon operations by heart already but there was something wrong about the way the cargo was being handled from the other side and Fonz was eager to set thing right to pave the way for his takeover. He was going to rule, yes, but also lead.