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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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BOOK: The Vatican Rip
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‘Nearly six, signor.’

Six. Marcello’s hour, the time he said to meet him at the Colosseum. I hadn’t taken all that much notice of what he’d said – being more concerned with getting my own resignation in. Until this chance bus journey, I honestly hadn’t the slightest intention of meeting Marcello. That is God’s truth. And if old Anna had not pinched my money . . . See what I mean, about events? I want to get this clearly understood, because the deaths weren’t my doing – well, anyhow not my responsibility. If I’d had my way I would have been back in my crummy East Anglian cottage instead of walking towards the curved stone storeys of the Colosseum.

There was hardly anyone about. An ice-cream van arriving, a police car dozing, an almost empty bus wheeling round and a couple of little kids waiting for the day’s tourist action to begin. One early car halfheartedly tried to run me down. The city had hardly begun to wake.

The Colosseum’s real name is the Teatro Flaviano. It stands at a big intersection of the San Gregorio and the road leading to the Forum. From the outside it has the appearance of a huge gutted edifice still in its undressed fawn-coloured stone. In its heyday it held as many as fifty thousand spectators and is beautifully planned. Believe it or not, it had enough exits and enough room for its audience – an architectural miracle. Find a modern building that has decent doorways and isn’t hell to be in. Lovely.

I stood listening a moment between the pillars of the entrance. There was no sign of Marcello, just a great horde of cats insolently giving me their sneery stare. None bothered to move, and I even had to step over two as I entered between the scagged stones.

An empty ruin can be quite spooky, even in the centre of a bustling city in the bright cold sunlight of morning with the occasional car door slamming and noise of a passing bus. I called Marcello’s name. It came out a bleat, for no reason because I wasn’t scared or anything. I shook myself and called his name a bit louder. No luck. I trod inside, under the stretching stone.

The actual floor of the amphitheatre itself has long since gone. You come out looking up the length of the Colosseum’s open space, with the huge slabbed divisions of the cells below now occupying all that is left of the vast arena. All round and climbing upwards are stone galleries for the spectators of long ago. I went to the right along one of the contoured terraces. A sprinkling of cats yawned and prowled after me.

I called softly, ‘Marcello?’

A pebble dislodging somewhere practically made me leap out of my skin. There was a light echoing thud, probably some moggie nudging a piece of crumbling mortar off a stone buttress. For some reason I had the jitters, but then I’m like that, always on edge over something that isn’t there. Cats are nice, yet when you are in a place like that you can’t help thinking of their bigger relatives noshing Christians by the hundred, and spectators howling for blood.

Like a fool I found myself going on tiptoe round the terrace, and this with an ice-cream-seller whistling outside as he put out his awning and in clear shout of that splendid police car out by the pavement and, and . . .

The terrace ended about halfway round the great ellipse. An iron railing barred my way. To the right lay the outer wall and its splendid arched fenestrations showing the city of Rome slugging out of her kip. To the left, the central cavity of the arena. If I hadn’t been in such a state I’d have found time to marvel at the construction. As it was, I barely had the inclination to glance ahead and down to where the buttressing was being restored. The new giant blocks of stone were symmetrically arranged on the sand to either side of . . . of Marcello.

He lay in the ungainliest attitude twenty feet below, one arm folded behind his back and his head turned at an impossible angle as if he were listening hard. Blood from his nostrils and mouth spattered the pale fawn dust. Pathetically, an ankle was exposed where the fall had rucked up his trouser leg. A moist stain was still gradually extending down his trousers. His bladder had voided under the impact when his body had struck. There was no question of life. An early fly was already at his lips.

I looked about, frightened out of my wits. Dithering like a nerk, I put my satchel down with some daft idea of climbing down, but finally thought better of things. Nearby a cat licked its paw with complete disdain. The vast terraces were still empty. Nobody was yet photographing Pope Pius IX’s wooden crucifix across the other side. No talk, no other sounds. I whipped round nervously, but was still alone.

The Colosseum was fast becoming no place to be. People would be here soon, and that meant the police. I looked over the edge of the terracing into the recess. My instincts were right – get the hell out. I was sweating and prickling. If Marcello had only just fallen – the sound of that thud came back to mind – his pushers were still here.

The sun was warming the vast bowl as I flitted from pillar to pillar in a feeble attempt to leave undetected. I was disgusted with myself. Some people would be sensible, brave it out. It’s called being responsible. Others, like me, chicken out. I bulleted into the main thoroughfare.

The two little lads were still hunched over their game. Neither looked up. The ice-cream-seller had successfully manoeuvred his van into position a good fifty yards away and was smoking over his morning paper. I was mainly interested in the police car, though, which had gone. I had a vague idea I just glimpsed it leaving down the San Gregorio but wasn’t going to press the issue.

The streets looked a bit more built-up towards St John Lateran so I strolled that way, my heart in my mouth. A couple of cars took turns trying to get me, hooting noisily as they screeched round the Colosseum. Somehow nearly losing my life crossing the road made me feel better, even when I realized I’d no longer got my satchel. I thought, oh Gawd, and half-started to go back for it, but cowardice won out.

Rome was almost fully wakened now. I was still shaking, but improving. At least I had a great living city to be broke in, and a whole living day before me. Better still, I was alive in it. Marcello wasn’t.

I watched Anna. Grudgingly I had to admit she was bloody good.

By ten past eight I’d picked Anna up in the market on the Andrea Doria. She first worked a crowd of tourists from a coach in the Conciliazione, the long broad avenue between the River Tiber and St Peter’s. At first I was a bit slow guessing what was going on. She bumped into people and tripped up, always getting in everybody’s way. Her profuse apologies were so sincere. She picked two tourists’ pockets, and following her down the little intersecting street towards the Borgo San Spirito I was almost certain I saw her discard an extra handbag in the box of a passing pick-up truck, slick as you please. If you’ve ever seen the traffic hurtle down the narrow Borgo you’ll understand my admiration. There is hardly an inch of pavement.

Poor old decrepit Anna was obviously fit as a flea despite the pronounced limp which returned when she was back in the growing crowd. In fact it was all I could do to keep up with the crummy old devil. I had seen enough to have no worries when an hour later she was spectacularly run down by a tourist coach at the corner of the Mascherino. She lay moaning and twitching with her few pieces of fruit scattered in all directions. I waited patiently while she gradually recovered and the sympathetic tourists had a whip-round for her, then followed her back towards St Peter’s.

For the next couple of hours she worked the crowds brilliantly, leaving no scam unturned. It was as good a sustained lurk as anything I’d ever seen and I was glad – she was my one possible helper. For her age she was beyond belief. All in one dazzling hour-long spell she did three phoney fetches (you nick something, then ‘find’ and return it, absolutely brimming with honesty). She even did the fetch gig with a kid and got away with it. You can imagine the father’s demented relief. She was unbelievably fast, smoother than any I’d seen for years. The old bag even managed to get
on
a coach as everybody else was getting off, to emerge carrying two cameras and a lady’s handbag through the coach’s emergency exit and zoom down a side street. I never did see how she got rid of them, but by the time I headed her off she was tottering and being helped by some sympathetic Americans near the Angelica. I decided the young nerk who’d started following me was no more than a stray pickpocket and could be safely discounted for the moment.

By one o’clock the pace hotted up. A pattern was becoming evident. Anna kept strictly to one area, roughly bounded by St Peter’s Square, the Borgo and the river, and she only did a fixed number of scams. The dip seemed to be her thing, that and a careful selection of cons of which the spectacular ‘accident’, the faint and the phoney fetch were her favourites. I followed, marvelling, and stuck to her like glue.

It was about two o’clock when it happened. I was reeling bewilderedly after her hunched, limping, amorphous form when I realized the old bag was pausing. She was by Bernini’s fountain in St Peter’s Square, with me thankfully trying to get my breath and her sprightly as ever. She did something extraordinary. Quite openly, she deliberately placed a postcard in the water of the fountain. Just layered it with great precision so it floated. I stared as she moved off at a sedate limp towards the great Colonnade pillars among the tourists.

Fascinated, I approached the fountain. There it was, a postcard, still floating. I glanced about. People were clicking cameras, gazing at the great architecture, chatting and strolling or simply staring up at the Holy Father’s narrow window in hopes he might show. Nobody noticed the old lady’s odd action.

It was barely soggy. I got it and turned the picture over. Her writing was large, decisive and brisk.

Enrico,

The Ponte Sant’ Angelo, about six-thirty.

Wait if I’m late. Love, Anna.

 

I thought blankly, Enrico? Who the hell—? Then I remembered. Enrico was me, her ‘nephew’.

I put the card in my pocket and set off in the direction she had taken. Within two minutes I realized the old sod had slipped me. Furiously I searched for her high and low but finally chucked in the sponge. She had vanished.

I slumped exhausted on the Colonnade steps to wait till six-thirty. The old bag had shown an oddly consistent interest in me – particularly
me
– ever since I’d showed up. There was something odd here. I felt pushed, manoeuvred. The same feeling, in fact, I’d had since first meeting Arcellano that day in the auction. Surely Anna had nothing to do with Arcellano?

I put my head on my knees and pretended to doze. The showy idiot who had been following me since about nine o’clock was now leaning against a pillar forty feet away. He was on his umpteenth bottle of red wine and looked like a villain from bad rep theatre. He was about eighteen and had seen too many cheap movies. He terrified me so much I nodded off.

Chapter 9

‘I saved your life, Enrico,’ Anna said, wading into ninety square yards of pizza, a horrible sight. ‘From Carlo.’

‘Who the hell’s Carlo?’

‘Look back.’

We were walking at a slow pace away from the Angelo, the great circular castle by the Tiber. We had crossed the bridge and just turned left down the Coronari. A tangle of narrow streets was beginning, the kind I had yet to see in Rome. Anna was clearly at home here, never needing to check direction.

Behind us the youngish bloke was leaning against the wall of a barber’s shop, cleaning his nails with a stiletto.

‘That 1951 Bogart is yours, I take it?’

Anna cackled. ‘That’s Carlo. He wanted to spit you.’

‘Good gracious,’ I said politely.

‘He’s armed,’ she said mischievously.

‘His sort always is.’

She fell about at that. ‘You’re great. This way, Enrico.’

We dived to the right and started going slightly uphill. The streets were no more than alleys hereabouts. A lovely aroma pervaded my nostrils and I started to quiver. Furniture varnish. Several small antique shops, of remarkable elegance for such a crummy-looking district, were dotted in the nooks and crannies of the cobbley labyrinth. Carlo was following, three parts sloshed and weaving from side to side. You have to laugh.

‘Visit the Vatican again?’ she croaked as we trotted up the alley.

‘Me? No. Why should I?’

She rolled in the aisles at this as well. I found myself getting narked at the old jessie. And the spectacle of her ravaged senile face smeared with grease did nothing for me, except make me heave.

‘That’s no answer.’ She laughed so much I had to bang her shoulders to get her breathing again. As soon as her colour came back she assaulted her pizza again. It was horrible. All she needed was some knitting and a guillotine. ‘And you’ve been following me all day.’

The old gamp had me there. ‘Actually, I’m strapped.’

‘Broke, eh? Get dipped?’

I waited coldly for her paroxysm of hilarity to end. She had to hold on to the doorway of a small antiques shop to recover.

‘Yes. By you, you old bitch. I want it back.’


Me?
What a terrible accusation!’

Her eyes were gleaming behind her specs. I turned for half a look.

Carlo was closing slowly, every inch real menace. Doubtless Anna had given him some signal because he held his knife hand at that loose angle which did not alter as he moved, a real giveaway.

Other than us the alley was empty. There was a small boozer further along and a couple of antique furniture shops and some place crammed with ecclesiastical vestments. I could see a preoccupied browser or two in one of the antique shops. Somewhere nearby an electrical sander hummed. Maybe this was the right time and place.

I said, ‘Hand it over, Anna. My money.’

‘You try to riddle me? On my own doorstep?
Brutto!

I fetched her one then, only lightly because of her age, but enough to shut her mouth while I lifted her handbag from the basket. This goon Carlo was a real comic, hissing dramatically and narrowing his eyes as he came with his knife weaving sinister patterns in front of him. By then I was just too tired to bugger about. You can’t blame me. I’d had a rotten two days.

BOOK: The Vatican Rip
3.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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