Summer was coming early. It was only early May, but it had been hot since mid-April. Attention spans and teachers’ tempers were short as everyone’s interest in academics melted. The dress code was relaxed to let students leave their jackets in their lockers, but sweat drops still ruined handwritten assignments and lecture notes.
Joe stayed behind after history one day. He showed Brother Mark a half-dozen of the acronyms.
“I found these in magazine articles, but I can’t figure them out.”
“I recognize all but this one,” the monk said, He took a pencil and wrote the expansions in Joe’s notebook. “They’re all about military intelligence.”
“Spying and stuff?”
“And armies and terrorism and such. It’s been in the news a lot. These are specialized abbreviations. Where did you read them?”
“Different places. Panorama, Espresso, and magazines like that.”
“Are they like Time and Newsweek in Italian? I haven’t read them.” Brother Mark had just arrived from the United States in time for the school year.
“Yes, Brother. Where could I look to learn about this?”
“Well, you could check the USIS library at the Embassy. Look for ‘intelligence’, ‘military science’ and ‘counterespionage’ in the card catalog. I think ‘terrorism’ is too new an idea to be in the catalog yet. But that should get you started.”
“Thanks –” The bell rang, and Joe ran to his next class.
That evening, he let his mother know that he wanted to go downtown the next day after school to look things up at the USIS library.
“Leave a note for Angela,” Nancy said, “so she knows not to expect you. I’ll save your dinner.”
The book holdings in the USIS library were not nearly as impressive as the marble statues or the wall friezes of the sixteenth-century palazzo which housed the library. Most of the military books were about wars in ancient history. They did not even have much on World War II. The few books about espionage were about spies during the American Civil War. The place had served him well for school reports, but Joe felt discouraged looking for current material.
“Most of these things are too recent to be here yet,” explained the librarian when he showed her his list. “There are good books coming out all the time, but we don’t get them until a few years after they come out. You could try the British Council library and then you’ll have to go to a bookstore and buy new books.”
The British Council near the Piazza di Spagna had even less than its American counterpart, but Joe did find a book about espionage in general. It was interesting reading and helped him understand why countries spy on each other. He did not break a single abbreviation, however.
It was mid-May before Joe could ride downtown to check out the bookstores. First, he tried the English-language store, the Lion Bookshop on Via del Babuino off the Spanish Steps. It carried things aimed at tourists and general reading by British and American authors, but nothing that could help him. Next, Joe tried the big Libreria Internazionale, near the Termini train station, which had books from all over the world.
“May I just browse?” he asked the manager. “I can’t buy anything today.”
“Sure, go ahead,” said the manager. “You can’t fill in your gift list if you don’t know what we have.”
Relieved, Joe darted into the stacks. He found several books on NATO and Communist politics and two on the rising threat of terrorism. One book had one abbreviation he needed on the book jacket, which was a lucky break. He went back to the manager.
“I like all your books, especially the ones up there on the third stack back, but I know I can’t ask for all of them. They seem so expensive. Why is that?”
“Mostly taxes and customs duties,” said the manager. “There are some used bookstores in the neighborhood, but you won’t find books on current affairs there yet.”
“Don’t you ever have sales?”
“No, never. If you need a lot of books, you’ll need to go to England. They have the best prices in the world. Not much help, is it?”
“Actually, that’s an idea. Thank you, sir.” The manager probably never guessed that Joe was not Roman. Joe left the store more excited about the coming vacation than ever.
The books in the Libreria Internazionale had several of the acronyms on Joe’s list. Joe picked up two more in the newspaper that week. He was scanning the major daily newspapers in English and Italian more carefully now, as well as the magazines that had carried Jack’s articles. That weekend he took out the Arland file and almost finished it.
The finished collection of articles still made interesting reading. It was good background for the articles Joe was seeing in the press each week. Whoever collected this stuff, Joe thought, is seriously worried about the bombing groups. That triggered another worry – about whether his mother had in fact read all this stuff, and why was it in the files at Smithson Italia, a pharmaceutical company?
Joe noticed that he had found none of the abbreviations in the handwritten notes. They only appeared in the margins or articles or letters where the writer had circled the name or a person or group. Joe concluded that they must be code words for those people. Since they were all very short, the writer probably was using them for telegrams or telexes.
Joe decided that he had done enough. But he felt bad that he had not found everything. He decided to make a copy of his final translation and the list of abbreviations, so he could keep looking for the missing items. Besides, he thought, I may need this stuff later, so I don’t have to look all this up again if there is more of the same.
He typed one short letter, making a carbon copy by placing a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of typing paper. But it took so long, he did the rest of the job with a ball-point pen. He pressed as he wrote, and the carbon paper made a nice dark copy on the bottom sheet.
“Mr. Arland,” Joe said on the telephone. “I finally finished the whole batch you gave me.”
“That’s great, Joe, but I thought you were going to give them to me as you finished them.”
“There were so many abbreviations in all of them, that I couldn’t finish any of them. When I got those figured out, the letters and articles all came out together.”
“Next time, call me if you have trouble like that. Some are internal company codes you wouldn’t find. The others don’t seem to be important.”
“I guessed that as I finished this week. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I have another pile for you. Can you do it a little sooner?”
“Yes, sir, now that school is out.”
“I forgot about that. That means we could meet during the day. Are you at home?”
“Yes, sir. Want to pick up this stuff today?”
“That would be ideal. How about the hotel lobby in a half-hour?”
“I have a luncheon appointment back downtown,” said Jack as he walked into the lobby in a hurry. “Here’s the second pile.” He gave Joe a thick folder of clippings and letters. Joe exchanged that for the finished file.
“One letter is typed, but it took so long, I went back to hand-writing everything. Also, there’s a list of six abbreviations I couldn’t find. If you let me know which ones you don’t recognize, I’ll keep looking for them.”
“That’s fine, Joe. Thanks for trying to type, but like I said, I can get that done if I need it. I would rather have the translated work back any way you can get it.”
“Yes, sir. Remember we’re going on vacation this weekend, but I should be able to work on some of it while we’re gone.”
Jack looked up with a start. “I don’t want your mother in on this, Joe. You both need the vacation.”
“She won’t know. I have a book for Mr. del Piave that I have to finish, so there’s a reason for me to be translating. Besides, this is interesting. I don’t mind.”
“Well, OK.” Jack put the translated files in his attaché case. “Just remember our deal: the stuff for your mother first. How many pages was this?”
Jack took a one-hundred-dollar bill from his wallet.
“Ever see one of these?”
“No, sir.” Joe felt a rush as he looked at the face of Ben Franklin. “That’s worth thirty-five hundred lire more than you owe me.”
“You’ll lose that much exchanging it at the bank, so it comes out even. Besides, I would have had to go change it myself, but I’m running late. Will that be OK?”
“Yes, sir! I wish I could keep it.”
“Don’t worry, Joe. I have a feeling you’ll see a lot of Mr. Franklin. You’re a good worker.” He shook Joe’s hand and turned to walk quickly out the door.
Joe felt nervous as he walked from the hotel lobby past the boutiques to the bank branch. But no one robbed him.
(to be continued)