Rick felt the faint vibration of his cell phone before hearing the ring. He pulled it from his pocket and saw that the number was from the States, though not an area code he recognized. Given the hour in Rome, the caller had to be an earlier riser—very early, if calling from the West Coast. He moved to the side of Piazza Navona and took a seat on one of its stone benches.
“Mr. Montoya, my name is Alexis Coleman. I am in the employ of Angelo Rondini.”
The voice was smooth and efficient. “In the employ” was an expression more appropriate for use in a nineteenth-century British novel than by a woman whose American accent Rick could not place. He prided himself on detecting accents, both American and Italian; it came with being a professional interpreter. But he couldn’t decide what part of the country she was from. More intriguing was her tone. It implied that he would know who Angelo Rondini was.
“Good morning, Ms. Coleman. How can I help you?”
“Mr. Rondini would like to contract your services.”
“I’m always glad to hear such words. How did he find out about my services? If I might ask.”
“It is a perfectly reasonable question. The chief of the economics section in the embassy recommended you.”
The economics counselor at the embassy in Rome was a good friend of Rick’s father from an earlier assignment in their careers. It always helped to have friends in high places.
“Mr. Rondini spoke with Mr. Treacy?”
“Mr. Rondini spoke with the ambassador, who gave him Mr. Treacy’s name. I called Mr. Treacy.”
Aha. Not just anyone, Rick knew, could pick up the phone and talk to the American ambassador in Rome. Perhaps, like the ambassador, Mr. Rondini had been a major contributor to the president’s election campaign. Whoever this Rondini guy was, he had clout. And he was above speaking to anyone lower than the ambassador in the embassy pecking order.
“What kind of interpreting would Mr. Rondini like me to perform for him?”
“Can you please hold for a moment, Mr. Montoya?”
Before he could answer she was replaced by classical music. Boccherini. Rick kept the phone to his ear and looked around the piazza. It was the usual mix of tourists and locals, most on their way to lunch, many stopping to watch the waters of the four rivers noisily recycle through Bernini’s fountain. After a full three minutes, she returned.
“Sorry about that. Mr. Rondini is making a trip to Mantova, Italy, to attend a funeral and make contact with his family there. You will be his guide.”
Not would, but will. He also noticed that she used the Italian “Mantova” instead of the anglicized “Mantua” that would be found on most maps in the States. The woman must have done her homework.
“It sounds interesting, Ms. Coleman, but I’m afraid that kind of thing is really not my usual—”
“I checked your website and saw your daily rate, Mr. Montoya. Mr. Rondini will double that. And cover your expenses, of course.”
He looked at the phone and decided he’d heard right. “When will Mr. Rondini need me, and for how long?”
“The funeral is next Thursday, so he is planning on arriving that morning. He can’t be away for more than a week. I will send you the logistical details by e-mail today. I trust that will work with your schedule?”
At that moment Rick was working on a series of academic translations. It was boring sitting over his keyboard with a dictionary trying to make sense of someone’s turgid Italian and then transforming it into equally turgid English. He was anxious to have a live interpreting job, and this one sounded intriguing as well as lucrative.
“Certainly. I’ll juggle my schedule, but it can work.”
“Excellent. My e-mail will have contact information, but you can call me at this number if absolutely necessary. Good-bye, Mr. Montoya.” She was gone before Rick could think of any other questions, let alone return her good-bye.
He looked up at the gray sheet of clouds that covered the city, perhaps portending another afternoon rain. The call had partially brightened his day, which needed some brightening. Not only was his work at the moment dull, his relationship with Betta Innocenti had been sliding into a predictable routine. Is this what happens when two people spend too much time together? A trip alone to Mantova might be just what he—and Betta—needed. She was immersed in a case of stolen paintings with the art police, so she might not even notice he was gone.
He kept the phone in his hand and scrolled through the numbers in his address book before hitting the one for the embassy. After talking to the switchboard operator and one secretary, he got through to the counselor for economic affairs.
“Ciao, Rick. I thought you might be calling.”
“First, John, thanks for the recommendation. But tell me who this guy Rondini is. Besides being a friend of the ambassador.”
Treacy laughed. “You found that out. They were both on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but I don’t think they’re close friends. That Coleman woman’s a piece of work, isn’t she? Like talking to some kind of automaton.”
“You think? I found her quite charming. Especially when she told me what Rondini was going to pay me. Listen, I’ll look up Rondini on the Internet so as not to waste your time. You have better things to do. But thanks again for giving her my name. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“Please do. And give my best to your mom and dad next time you Skype with them.”
Rick promised he would. A few minutes later he was in his apartment, searching on his laptop for information about Angelo Rondini. He didn’t have to go far, and began to scribble notes on a yellow legal pad as he read the screen.
Angelo Rondini, 78, born Voglia, Italy, widowed, one daughter, residences in Chicago and Marco Island, Florida, semi-retired from Rondini Enterprises (malls and shopping centers), serves on boards of directors at numerous corporations and national charities, art collector.
The photograph on the screen showed a man in a tuxedo with two other people who looked equally wealthy and of the same age, all holding champagne flutes. He had thinning but long white hair and wore glasses which were lightly tinted yellow. The event was a fund-raiser for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and these three looked like just the type of persons any community organization would kill for to have in attendance at their events. Nothing could be deduced from the expression on Rondini’s face, not in this photo or any of the others that came up in the search. No kindly smile, but no stony expression either. Rick would have to wait until he actually met his temporary employer to make an assessment of the man. What was most intriguing was that Rondini had been born in Italy. There had to be a story in that.
Rick called his uncle. Commissario Piero Fontana was not at his desk at police headquarters, but the call was answered by his faithful secretary, Signora Rocca. It was a running joke in the building that she had started working in the questura when Rome became capital of Italy in the nineteenth century, using family connections to King Vittorio Emmanuele to get the job. She wasn’t quite that old, but she did have connections, something Piero used sparingly and only when dealing with the most sensitive issues.
“Your uncle is out on a case, Riccardo. You can call him on his telefonino.”
Not when he’s working a case. “Thank you, Signora, please tell him that I’ll be going to Mantova on Wednesday. He can call me when he’s free and I’ll explain.”
“I’ll tell him. And how is that lovely little friend of yours?”
It was another of Signora Rocca’s traits, an interest in the personal life of everyone she met. Not that she was nosy; it was a benign interest, like that of a maiden aunt or a grandmother. Importantly, she didn’t share what she knew with others, which meant that police in the building came to her with personal problems, knowing it would go no farther than her desk. Her advice was usually sound. The Ann Landers of police headquarters. Today, Rick was not in the mood to share.
“Betta is fine. Working hard.”
“You must bring her by some time so I can meet her.”
After he hung up, Rick reluctantly returned to his translation. An hour later he put his computer on sleep and pulled out his red guide book for Lombardia. As he expected, there was a long entry on Mantova.
• • • • •
Rick’s overnight train from Rome arrived in Verona on time, saving him any worry about making his rendezvous with Rondini. The sleeping compartment gave him what he needed: a firm mattress, the regular clatter of the rails to put him to sleep, and a sink for him to wash up and shave when he awoke. The porter had tapped on his door at exactly the time he’d requested, holding a caffè latte and cornetto on a small tray. So much more civilized than flying. Poor Rondini would be a basket case after a flight from Chicago, with a plane change somewhere else in Europe before arriving in Verona, the nearest airport to Mantova.
Even without his morning run, Rick was in excellent spirits when he stepped off the car and started walking along the platform. Everyone else coming off the train seemed to be in more of a hurry. They rushed past him, suitcase wheels rumbling along the pavement, leading him down the steps, under the tracks and into the terminal. Like most Italian train stations, it was cavernous and bustling with people. The only ones not hurrying along had stopped to scan the massive schedule board or were talking on cell phones. He immediately spotted a strategically placed man in a blue suit holding a hand-lettered sign: MONTOIA. Close enough.
“I’m Riccardo Montoya.” Rick extended his hand.
The handshake was firm, the smile genuine. “Piacere, Signor Montoya. Marco Bertani.”
The driver was older than Rick by at least a decade. Gray streaks had begun to work themselves in among the long, dark hair, and there was the hint of a stomach. He was clean-shaven, and his shoes were shined to perfection. He wanted to make a good first impression on Rondini.
“You can be more formal with our employer, Marco, but please call me Riccardo.”
“Riccardo it is.” He gestured toward the door. “I’m parked just outside. Do you need help with the bag?”
“I’ll get it, thanks. Are you from here, Marco? I’m always trying to identify local accents.”
“In fact I was born in the Verona suburbs south of the city, but I’ve lived here in Verona most of my life. So I suppose my accent is more Vernonese city than of the countryside around it, not that there’s much difference.”
A large modern square greeted them when they emerged into the open. The day was cloudy with patches of sky, and the temperature noticeably colder than what it had been when Rick had left Rome. That would be expected this far north of the Apennines and in the shadow of the Alps, especially in late autumn. He tightened the wool coat that he wore over his blazer. They reached the parking lot and Bertani led Rick to a shiny black Mercedes S-class sedan parked away from the other vehicles. The car was a few years old, but had been so well kept up that looked like it had just rolled off the line at Stuttgart. Bertani popped the ample trunk and stowed Rick’s bag. He went to the rear passenger door to open it but Rick waved him off, opened the front door, and climbed in. The driver brought the diesel engine to life and they eased into the street.
“You are making me look like a country bumpkin, Marco,” Rick said. Burino was not a word he used often in his interpreting work, and he was pleased to have remembered it.
The driver glanced from the road to Rick. “I hadn’t noticed anything but your cowboy boots. Are you from Texas? I’ve always wanted to visit there.”
“I lived close to Texas. I went to university in New Mexico, the next state west of Texas.”
“I had clients once from Santa Fe. That’s in New Mexico, isn’t it?”
“Bravo. The state capital. You have a lot of clients from America?”
“Yes. I suspect Mr. Rondini found out about my company from one of them. The word gets around.”
“So your English must be fluent.”
“Not totally fluent as is your Italian, Riccardo, but I am able to defend myself.”
Less work for me, Rick thought. The car began to weave its way through the city as only a local driver could do, sometimes on major streets, other times getting off them to avoid traffic. They crossed the river, passed railroad yards, and moved into the suburbs which, as in most of Italy, were more drab than the upscale historic center. This may have been where Marco had grown up, but Rick didn’t ask. They drove parallel to the autostrada and went underneath it as airport signs, with the international airplane symbol, began to appear.
“I was told you would have the flight information, Marco.”
The driver grunted an assent as he wheeled off the street toward the terminal. His Mercedes passed the terminal entrance and the parking lot, coming up to a gate manned by a uniformed guard. He rolled down his window but the guard merely greeted him with a “Ciao, Marco,” and waved the car past. Rick was impressed, but noticed they were parking far from the terminal. Just ahead, the tarmac spread out in front of the windshield. A mid-sized Lufthansa plane had just pushed away from the terminal and was making its way out to the runways.
“We can wait here,” said Marco. “I’ll check on their arrival, but it should be in just a few minutes.” He got out of the car, pulled a cell phone from his suit pocket, and walked a few steps before dialing.
Rick opened his door and stepped to the cement. He stretched and looked around, his nostrils taking in the coarse odor of burning airplane fuel that always hung over runways. After so many plane trips as the son of a diplomat, he knew it well. They were close to a door at one end of the terminal where, he assumed, they would go in to meet Rondini at the gate. Better than going through a crowded terminal. Marco clearly knew his way around; he must have done this countless times when meeting other clients. Through a break in the clouds, Rick could see snow on the mountains, making him think of the upcoming ski season. Perhaps he could meet Flavio again for a ski vacation. The clouds closed in and his thoughts returned to the present. The Lufthansa plane was now at the end of the runway, gunning its engines, almost close enough to make Rick cover his ears. It lurched forward, picked up speed, and suddenly climbed sharply into the air. After it disappeared into the clouds, Rick heard the distant sound of another plane coming from the opposite direction. As he was turning to find it, the driver came back to the car.
“I have a friend who works in the control tower.” Marco gestured toward the terminal. “The plane should be here at any moment.”
“It’s probably the one I just—” Rick’s sentence was interrupted by the sound of the Lobo Fight Song coming from his pocket. He extracted his cell phone and flipped it open. “Commissario Fontana, it is an honor to speak with you.” It was his standard response when receiving a call from his uncle.
“And how is my nephew?” said the voice at the other end of the line. “Have you been to the castle yet?”
“Still in Verona, Zio. At the airport. The man’s plane should be here momentarily. Did you solve the case that has kept you so busy the last few days?”
“I’m afraid not, and we are running out of time.” He paused. “Riccardo, did you speak with Betta before you left last night?”
Rick rubbed his eyes. It was the kind of question a mother would have asked, but perhaps Piero had begun thinking that he should be his sister’s stand-in. Despite his affection for Piero, he was annoyed by this kind of meddling. Or was he annoyed because the relationship with Betta was going sour?
“I left her a message.”
Even over the phone Piero could sense that his question was not appreciated. He let it drop. “Everything is on schedule up there in the north?”
“With typical northern efficiency, Zio.” Rick turned away from the tarmac, hunched over, and raised his voice as the engines from the arriving plane got closer. “The driver is waving at me; it must be time to go into the terminal. Talk to you later. Ciao.”
Marco was gesturing for Rick to return to the car. When Rick got in, he put it in gear.
“Are we driving back to the terminal, Marco? I thought we’d be going in through that door.”
“No terminal for us, Riccardo.”
The Mercedes drove through an open gate onto the tarmac as the plane was directed to its parking place by an airport employee wielding two brightly colored paddles. Rick chuckled and shook his head as they parked off the left wing. He didn’t know much about private jets, but he knew this was a Gulfstream, that it could easily fly direct from Chicago to Verona, and that if you had to ask what it cost, you couldn’t afford one. The name RONDINI ENTERPRISES was centered under the seven oval windows, large enough to read but small enough to be tasteful. As they sat waiting for the plane engines to stop, a small Fiat Panda with a flashing light on its roof pulled up next to them and a man in a blue suit holding a briefcase got out.
“Passport and customs,” said Marco without looking at Rick.
The two engines whined to a stop and the door of the plane opened. As soon as the stairs dropped to the ground, the official scurried up into the plane holding tightly to his briefcase. Rick and the driver got out of the car and leaned against its hood while they waited.
“Nice way to travel,” Rick commented.
The formalities didn’t take long. The man came down the steps, got back into his car, and drove off toward the terminal. As the car departed, a woman dressed in blue slacks and a white blouse looked out from the plane door. She gazed at the snow on the mountains to the north before noticing Rick and giving him a wave. He waved back. A few more minutes passed before Angelo Rondini himself appeared, shaking hands with the pilot and copilot. Rondini slapped one of them on the back and took in the mountain view before starting down the steps.
The society photo had not flattered or aged him. Except for a brown suit and tie rather than a tuxedo, it was the guy in the picture, down to the yellow-tinted glasses. He looked like he had recently lost some weight but hadn’t bothered to get himself a suit that fit better. An Italian with that much money would have worn a perfectly tailored suit, but, apparently, appearance was not that important to Angelo Rondini. His eyes locked on the two men on the tarmac who now moved toward the plane, and Rick could feel himself being sized up.
“You must be Montoya,” Rondini said as he shook Rick’s hand. “There’s a certain American aura about you. I haven’t seen boots like that since I opened a shopping mall in San Antonio. The person wearing them almost cost me the deal. And this guy is our driver, I suppose?”
He was about to make introductions, but Marco took the cue and stepped forward to offer his hand. “Marco Bertani, Mr. Rondini, at your services. It is my pleasure.”
The English was accented but clear.
“Sounds to me like this guy speaks good English,” Rondini said. “So tell me, Montoya, why did I hire you? I’ll have to have a talk with Lexi. That’s all right; I’ll find something for you to do.”
“Mr. Rondini, if you want to end my services now—”
The man clapped Rick on the shoulder just as he’d done with the pilot. “I always like to throw a curve ball when I first meet people. See how they react. It’s never failed me in business, and as you can see, I’ve done all right.” He didn’t feel the need to gesture toward the plane to help make his point. “I think we’ll get along just fine, Montoya. Despite the cowboy boots. Now if we can get Lexi off the plane, we can get the hell out of here.”
“I didn’t realize Ms. Coleman was coming along. She never mentioned that in her e-mails.”
“Probably didn’t think you needed to know. That’s just like her. But I never go anywhere without Lexi, even to a funeral. Plus, she keeps contact with the office. Never know what trouble those assholes back there will get themselves into.”
Rick looked up at the empty airplane doorway. Great. Not only do I have to deal with a millionaire with an ego, I have to put up with his supercilious special assistant. Perhaps I should have negotiated for three times my usual fee.
A male crew member came down the steps carrying bags and stowed them in the trunk of the car. He hustled back up the stairs and returned with another set. Angelo Rondini walked toward the tail of the plane to get a better look at the mountain. Rick pulled out his cell phone and checked the time.
Finally, Alexis Coleman appeared at the top of the steps, gripping a leather briefcase as if it held the nuclear codes. Jet-black hair in a natural cut framed an oval face, its smooth skin the color of a caffè macchiatto. The frames of her glasses subtly matched the burgundy hue of her lipstick, and if there was other makeup, it had been applied with perfection. He had been unable to estimate her age from the few words she’d spoken on the phone, but now Rick guessed mid-thirties, or perhaps younger, given the perfect complexion. He moved his eyes from the face to a slim figure which showed itself through the opening of a long wool coat.
Had it not been for her all-business manner, he might have looked forward to working with Alexis Coleman.
She extended her hand when she reached the bottom of the stairs.
“I assume you are Rick Montoya.” It was a serious handshake, matching her expression.
“My pleasure, Alexis.”
“Everyone calls me Lexi.” It sounded more like an order than a clarification. “And this is our driver, Mr. Bertani?”
Marco mumbled a few words and shook her hand.
Rondini watched it all with a large smile on his face. “Can we get this show on the road, Lexi? The only funeral I want to be late for is my own.”