Joe could not go home, not if the Carabinieri were looking for him. He knew it was time to check in with Agent Redwood and to get off the streets. He got off the bus at Piazza Barberini. The Embassy was just up the Via Veneto.
The bus was warm enough, but the heat really hit him as he crossed the Piazza. It reflected off the white marble of the buildings around the square and the water of the massive Triton fountain in the center. It rose off the black asphalt and the windows of cars parked around the fountain. This was only July. By mid-August, everyone who did not flee the city for the annual Ferragosto vacation was going to melt.
Joe slowed down when he reached the welcome shade of the tree-lined Via Veneto. He stopped when he came around the gentle bend climbing the hill and saw the Carabinieri outside the Embassy and the Annex. Of course, Carabinieri as well as police usually patrolled the streets outside the major Embassies. Are there more Carabinieri than usual? Joe wondered. Doesn’t matter, he thought. He turned into the narrow streets behind the Annex. He was looking for a pay-phone away from the visibility of the Via Veneto.
On the Via Lombardia, he spotted a trio of pay-phones on the wall. Joe turned to cross the street, which made him look behind him. The stranger that had followed him on the Vespa the week before was turning onto the Via Lombardia from the Via Veneto. He was moving very slowly, looking carefully at both sides of the street. Joe tried to hide by jumping back to the corner.
Joe heard the Vespa motor speed up, hard. He ran back down the street, heart and legs pumping, looking for an escape. He turned into an apartment building before the Vespa made it to the corner. Running up the first flight of stairs past the portiere’s booth (empty, he noted gratefully), Joe saw that a window at the end of each floor looked over the street. He looked cautiously down to see the Vespa rider moving slowly. Now Joe realized that there were four entrances on each side of the street just like the one he had used.
The stranger rode to the end of the block, turned and rode slowly back. He seemed to be trying to decide whether to commit himself to checking one of the apartment buildings. Joe watched him drive as far as the Via Porta Pinciana. He dismounted at the pay-phone and made a call. His eyes never left the street, even as he dialed. After a short, animated conversation, the stranger stood outside the booth scanning the street.
Joe and the stranger remained like this for about two minutes. Then the stranger quickly mounted his Vespa and drove down the Via Lombardia toward the Via Veneto.
Joe suddenly realized that he had to pee. Badly. He could not remember where the nearest vespasiano was, now that the City was removing most of them. The Emperor Vespasian had installed the public pissoirs throughout Rome in the first century, which cut down on the urine-soaking of walls and increased public health in a very crowded city.
Joe remembered the new public restrooms on the Pincian Hill, not far from the Pincian Gate at the top of the Via Veneto. He wondered if he could use the restroom at Jerry’s Bar and Grill or one of the cafés on the Via Veneto without being spotted.
He walked downstairs and back onto the street, heading cautiously away from the corner where he had last seen the stranger on the Vespa. He turned back toward the Via Veneto on Via Ludovisi, crossed the Via Veneto, and went into the Excelsior Hotel from the Via Boncompagni side. The lobby was almost empty, and no one seemed to take an interest in him. He used a booth in case someone walked into the men’s room.
As he came out of the men’s room, Joe noticed a pair of Carabinieri entering the lobby. Joe turned away and headed down the hall. He spotted a service door that led back to the Via Boncompagni and was soon back on the street walking to the Via Lombardia pay-phone.
He approached the Via Lombardia carefully, scanning it from the edge of the building. Crossing the street quickly, he stopped outside the booth to get Doug Redwood’s phone number from his pack. He dialed while holding the token over the slot, just in case the line was busy. It was. He looked up the street as he stepped out of the booth. A dark-blue Lancia with Army plates was moving slowly down the street, almost exactly as the Vespa had done only a half-hour before. Joe stuffed the rucksack behind the phone booth and ducked behind a parked Mercedes.
The Lancia moved slowly down the Via Lombardia. Four men seemed crammed into the car. Looking through the glass of the Mercedes, Joe could make out General Arcibaldo’s erect form in the front passenger seat. They looked on both sides of the street. Joe dropped down as the car passed.
He eased up slowly after what seemed like an eternity. The Lancia was waiting at the corner, though there was no traffic. Joe realized that the driver was alone just as he felt someone grab his arms and push him to the ground. The two burly men from back seat of the Lancia pulled him up and quickly carried him into the car. The General was already getting back in. The car headed down the Via Francesco Crispi toward the Pincian Hill.
Joe’s sides hurt, squeezed by the men on either side of him. The General spoke without looking back.
“Lo zaino, dov’è?” Where is the backpack?
Joe sat silently. The man on his right drove a fist into his ribs. Joe gasped and felt tears rise with the pain.
“Don’t play stupid with me,” the General said in English. “I know who you are and what you have translated for Mr. Arland.”
The driver stopped the Lancia for a tour bus unloading at the Spanish Steps. He drummed his hands impatiently on the steering wheel, while forty middle-aged German tourists crossed the street, pointing and clicking their cameras in every direction. The General lowered his sun visor to hide his face. The two thugs gripped Joe harder, while they smiled at the tourists.
When the crowd passed, a man on a Vespa sped up from behind and zipped around the Lancia. The driver swore and gunned the accelerator, tires squealing as the high-powered sedan flew out of the piazza.
“Lascialo!” Leave him be! barked the General. Suddenly the Vespa slid and fell. The Lancia driver slammed on the brakes. The car skidded and side-swiped a big tour bus coming in the other direction. Joe felt the glass explode into the car over his head. The sound of tearing metal hurt his ears. Pinned between the two thugs, Joe felt the car spin and stop as it crashed broadside into the stone wall to the right. The horn was stuck.
Joe opened his eyes. The thug on his left was slowly falling out of the opening where the car door had been. The other three men were unconscious.
The bus had just stopped. Joe climbed out the opening and began running back toward the Spanish Steps, ignoring the pain in his side. He was vaguely aware of shouting behind him as he bounded down the stairs two at a time. He took a sharp right across the Piazza di Spagna and ran at least two blocks north on Via del Babuino before he slowed to see if he was being followed. The pain eased as he caught his breath. He would be a sight when the bruises started showing.
Joe was alone in a sea of tourists, shoppers and businessmen. He saw a Vigna Clara-bound bus slowing at the stop just ahead and ran to catch it. Vigna Clara was where Doug Redwood lived. If the phone was busy, then someone was home.
Sitting on the bus, he realized that the other passengers were staring at him. He put his hand to his face and it came back bloody. The glass, he thought. Only then was he aware of the burning from the tiny glass cuts on his face and hair.
He used his handkerchief to wipe some of the blood. It was already clotting. A housewife pulled a roll of paper towels and a bottle of mineral water from her shopping bag and came over to tend the rest.
“It doesn’t hurt, ma’am,” Joe said in Italian. Her face relaxed.
“Oh, I thought you were a foreigner,” she said, “I’m just going to clean you up. Now sit still. You’re a mess.”
An old man with a veteran’s pin on his lapel leaned on his cane to look closely.
“Bunch of little scratches,” he said. “Were you in an accident?”
“Shattered window,” Joe said. “Not serious, but like the signora here said, messy. I’m going home now.”
Everyone seemed satisfied that he would be OK and went back to their other concerns. He offered to pay the housewife for the paper towels and the bottle of water, but she insisted that he drink the rest of it and take care of himself. She got off at the Villa Giulia, half way to the end of the line.
Joe had time to think now. There was something familiar about the Vespa and the way it fell. A deliberate tail-spin! Joe had practiced them for hours. He tried to remember the driver of the Vespa, but everything had happened so fast that he could not recall the details.
Joe had left the scene of an accident, but that was the least of his problems. As soon as the Carabinieri arrived on the scene, they would recognize the General, and hush the whole thing up. No one would ever know about him or the accident.
But every military policeman in a black uniform would be looking for Jason Joseph Mather, Jr., americano, 18 years old, 1.75 meters tall, sandy hair, hazel eyes. If he did not get some protection soon, there would be nowhere to hide.
The bus reached the end of the line two blocks from the apartment building where the Redwoods lived on the second floor. By now, Joe felt much better, though he could feel the scabs pulling on his face. He went to the front of the bus to get off, and froze.
There were Carabinieri and police with submachine guns deployed at all four corners of the square. Most of the residents of this sterile development outside the city were expatriates working in the larger embassies or for the multinational companies. There was usually a police car cruising around, but nothing like this.
Now where do I go? Joe thought. He could not go home. The Carabinieri would stake that out right away. He looked at his watch. It was only five o’clock. Angela was not expecting him and would not be back until Monday. No one would miss him. He could not make it to the Redwood’s house, or the houses of any of his classmates in the area.
Joe decided he was safest right where he was.
“Ho dimenticato qualcosa. I forgot something,” he said, as he paid the driver for another ticket. Soon the bus was on its way back towards downtown. This gave Joe time to think of a different destination.
He got off behind the Navy Ministry building, across the river from the Prati neighborhood. The police at the Ministry were at the front gate. He walked away from the Ministry toward the river. Soon, he was walking the familiar streets off the Viale Mazzini until he reached Via della Giuliana.
Joe walked to the coffee bar across the street from Sandra’s apartment building. He bought a handful of telephone tokens. He put them on the shelf in front of the phone and got out the slip of paper that Sandra had given him. No answer at Sandra’s apartment, but she was probably at the office. He called the FBI office, and got a phone message that the office was closed until Monday. He called the Redwood home. The phone was busy. He called the First Minister’s residence. The maid answered and explained that the family had gone to Capri for the weekend.
Nothing to do but wait. He bought a caffélatte and a doughnut. Then he went next door and bought a loaf of bread and a bottle of mineral water. He picked up a newspaper and a magazine at the news kiosk.
He watched Sandra’s building until the portiere left his post for a break or an errand. Then he walked inside and up the steps to where he had a view of the entrance, but he was out of sight of the portiere.
This was a good place to wait. The building had one of the new elevators that did not take coins or tokens, so no one used the stairs. Joe settled in for the long haul.
He finished the bread, half the water and the whole newspaper as the sun went down. The portiere turned on the hall lights from the ground floor while Joe hid on the landing above. The old man closed up his little guard shack, locked the big portone behind him and disappeared down the street. Joe stood up and ran up and down the first set of stairs a couple of times to get the blood going. He could not go back out now, because he did not have a key to get back in.
It was almost nine o’clock when he heard the big door open, and the familiar blond ponytail backed into the building. Sandra carried full shopping bags in both arms. Joe ran up the stairs to wait for her at her apartment.
Sandra froze as she stepped off the elevator. She let go of the bags and quickly caught them.
“Oh my God, Joe! What happened to you?”
“Two run-ins with the General Arcibaldo’s men. It looks a lot worse than it is.” He walked up and took the bags from her. “I met the Generale, too. They were all unconscious when I left them.”
“What did you do to them?” She opened the door and motioned him in. “Tell me about it while I get something to clean those cuts up better.”
It was a small apartment. A single long hall led from the door to a window at the end of the building, with two bedrooms at the end, and a combination living and dining room opposite the kitchen. He sat on a kitchen stool while she put a few things in the refrigerator, then went to the bathroom for a first aid kit.
As she fussed over his head and hands, he concentrated on recounting the events of the day. He really wanted to stop and breathe in her scent. He was looking at her neck and imagining her skin against his.
“And then?” she asked. He snapped to, embarrassed that he had stopped talking.
“I caught the bus to Vigna Clara. I figured my house would be staked out, but who would know that I would go to Doug’s house? At least until they figure out who my friends are.”
“Good thinking. Why didn’t you go to the Redwoods?”
“At the end of the line, I saw that the whole neighborhood was crawling with police and Carabinieri. I couldn’t get off the bus without being spotted, so I came back toward town, and walked here from the Navy building.”
“Have you called Agent Redwood?”
“I tried, but the line was busy. The Stocowski’s have gone to Capri, and your office was closed. I figured that you were on your way home. At least I hoped so.” He winced as she discovered a sliver of glass in his scalp that the lady on the bus had missed.
“Sorry!” She used tweezers to pull out the sliver. “Just today, the Ministry of the Interior ordered increased security for all neighborhoods with important foreigners. This thing is coming to a head, Joe.”
“Vigna Clara would certainly qualify. Good thing you live in the low-rent district, or I would have nowhere to go.”
She laughed. It was a light laugh that filled him with pleasure. He laughed, too.
“Well, Agent Redwood should be home by now. That will get Vittoria off the phone.”
“It’s his maid on the phone?”
Sandra rolled her eyes. “She talks to her sister for hours when no one’s home. It’s how we know she’s OK and no one else is there. Drove me nuts at first, until I realized that getting a busy signal for more than five minutes was a sure sign that the Redwoods were out.
“I’ll call him. You get those bloody clothes off, so we can run them through the wash.”
Joe dropped his jaw. She laughed again.
“Keep the underwear on, silly. I have four brothers. Unless you have pink shorts, it’s nothing I haven’t seen already.”
While she dialed from the phone in the hall, Joe peeled off his sports shirt and jeans. At least with the summer weather, he had not worn a suit and tie. He blushed when she returned.
“Did you get through?” he eased behind the kitchen table. She grinned knowingly.
“Uh-huh. He said that the safest place you could be right now is right here. No one follows secretaries. Unless something blows up overnight, he’ll pick you up here in the morning.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Of course not. In the middle of this whole mess, we have an evening to get to know each other without having to go through the whole dating ritual. I think it’s great.”
Joe grinned, feeling a little silly. “Me, too.”
“You know how to do laundry?”
“Well, duh, of course. Angela cooks and cleans, but I do the laundry.”
“OK. The machine’s over there, and the detergent is on the shelf. You wash your clothes, and I’ll get the rest of the shopping put away. Then we can think about supper.”
Joe went over to the closet-like space that served as a laundry area. The hamper was full.
“Mind if I run yours, too? One shirt and a pair of jeans is not a load.”
Joe founds some stain remover near the detergent and pre-treated the blood stains on his clothes. Then he sorted out the hamper and started a hot water wash, so his stuff would be done first.
“About supper. I could take us out.”
“No way, Joe. Strict orders from the FBI. You’re not to step outside until Agent Redwood gets here in the morning.”
“Oh. Makes sense, I guess.”
“Besides, I want to wow you with my culinary skills.”
“What do your four brothers have to say about that?” He grinned. She faked a pout and mock-threatened him with a large spoon.
“Can I trust you with a knife?”
“The Generale can’t, but you can.”
“You’ll find vegetables for a salad in the crisper. Make yourself useful.”
Joe gave her a salute. He took the knife she handed him, and a cutting board from the counter. He located lettuce, tomatoes, fennel, cucumber, radishes, and some aged pecorino. Setting himself up at the counter near the washing machine, he went to work.
It was a companionable experience, the two of them talking about their families as they cut, and stirred, and tasted. Sandra had grown up in the Midwest, more or less on a farm. Her father became a farmer after a career as an Army musician. Her mother was the music teacher in the local elementary school. There was always painting and music going on in the house. One brother became a Navy musician, another joined the Marines. The two younger ones were still at home, though it looked like number three son wanted to be a farmer, too.
“I saw the instruments in whatever you call the second bedroom. Do you play them all?”
“Some better than others, but yes. Viola is my first instrument. After voice.”
“So why art history instead of art or music?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to know more about everything, I guess. I love history, and the stories behind the art – and the music, for that matter – have always fascinated me. I love the stories.”
She turned the flame down under the ragù to let it simmer. Joe put the two salads on the table in the next room. The washing machine stopped. He went over and moved the load to the dryer, then loaded a cold-water wash with her clothes.
Sandra stopped stirring the ragù and looked at him with a sad look.
“What?” he asked. He looked down, just to be sure his underpants were still covering everything. She laughed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I was just wondering – well” She paused, looking embarrassed herself. “About your father. I know there’s just you and your mother.”
Joe shrugged. “It’s been a while now. No problem talking about it. Dad died when I was seven.”
“How did he die?”
“That’s the weird thing. We don’t know. He just got sick suddenly and wasted away in about six months. There never was a diagnosis.”
“That sounds terrible. I’m sorry for you.”
“Don’t be.” He smiled at her. She looked crestfallen. He reached out and brushed her cheeks with the back of his hand. “I can talk about it.”
“OK.” She brightened back up. “So now you know about my family. Tell me, what’s it like living with a famous mom.”
“Pretty normal, I think. She’s not famous at home, you know, just Mom.”
“But from what I hear, she’s an incredibly strong character. Is she scary or anything?”
“Well, she’s tough, but also very fair. She treats me like the man of the house, which means I have to share the load around the house, but she also respects my opinion.”
“That’s unusual, trust me. You’re lucky.”
“I know. But she’s also a doctor, you know. Drives me nuts how she psyches me out all the time.”
“I think all parents psych out their kids, not just doctors.”
She spread spices on the two beef filetti that he had beaten out and put them in a skillet. Joe took the load out of the dryer. He put his own clothes back on, folded hers, then loaded the cold-water load into the dryer. He went over to the pasta boiling on the back burner. Taking a fork, he speared a seashell-shaped piece and tasted it.
“Al dente,” he announced. Sandra killed the flame under the pot, while he carried it over to the sink and poured it into the colander. While he tossed it to get out the last of the water, she turned the flame off under the friarielle greens, the meat and the ragù.
“This is wonderful!” she turned around to smile at him. “I’ve never had anyone help with dinner here before. It’s a feast!”
Joe grinned. He loved seeing her so excited about something as simple as making dinner. He could not imagine having to live alone for months on end, cooking for just himself.
“This calls for candlelight,” she said. She pointed to a drawer. Joe opened it and removed a box of white candles, the plain paraffin ones that every family kept handy for power outages. Sandra reached into the back of a cabinet and pulled out a tarnished brass candelabra. It would have been a menorah, but it only had four candle holders.
Eating their conchiglie al ragù, they both kept silent. It was well after ten, and neither had eaten much all day. But they both kept looking up, catching the other’s gaze and smiling as they shoveled in another bite of the spicy dish. Sandra liked her sauces with lots of heat, which Joe appreciated. Nancy liked spicy food, but not as hot as Joe did.
During the meat course with the greens and salad, conversation resumed.
“Have you figured out whether you’re going back to GW yet?” he asked.
“Oh, I think I’ll go back in the fall. The question is, what will I major in?”
“You can’t take art history, accounting, and international relations?”
“No,” she said, smiling. “Wish I could.”
“Why the accounting?”
“Believe it or not, that is something the FBI’s looking for. They need more agents with accounting backgrounds, because so much of their investigative work involves financial crimes. Even the crimes that aren’t financial per se involve following the money to find a motive.”
“Makes sense. So, you’re serious about staying with the Bureau?”
“I think so. I mean, I’ve only seen the office here in Rome, and I have a feeling that Agent Redwood is a very special Special Agent. I may not have a good picture. How about you? I figure you’re going to college. Any idea where?”
“Still working on that. I’m leaning toward the Naval Academy, Harvard, or Johns Hopkins.”
“Annapolis, Ivy League, and med school. Is that what I hear?”
“Yes. I’d rather go into the Navy, so if I don’t go to Annapolis, I’ll try for NROTC at one of the others.”
“Those are hard to get into.”
“That’s what everyone tells me, but I just don’t see the problem. Heck, GW is competitive, too.”
Sandra shrugged. They ate in silence for a while.
Joe felt her foot running up and down his calf.
“Feeling more at ease with your clothes on?” She smiled and raised one eyebrow.
“Yes, but I don’t plan to sleep in them.” She faked a shocked expression. They laughed.
“For dessert, I just have ice cream. ‘If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake.’”
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“I’m full. Coffee?”
“Sure. I’ll get the dishes started while you make it. OK?”
“Wow. You do laundry AND dishes?” She rose and gathered her place setting. Joe rose, too.
“Yup. I’m housebroken, too.”
She put down her dishes and leaned over to kiss him. “I may not want to turn you over to my boss in the morning.” Joe returned the kiss. They separated slowly and picked up their dishes.
“You mind espresso?” she asked.
“That’s normal in our house. But I thought everyone at the Embassy had American coffeemakers.”
“I started out as a student on the economy, remember. One of the first things I had to learn was to enjoy the local food and drink.”
“That explains the local shopping you came in with.”
“Yup. Once I got used to it, I found that I prefer the food at the Trionfale market to the frozen and canned stuff at the commissary. It’s fresh, like what I grew up on, and I don’t have to lug it home on the bus.”
The second load in the dryer finished. Joe pulled the laundry out and began folding it. Sandra ran over to join him, then stopped and grinned.
“You are well-trained.” She laughed as she started folding with him. “This isn’t even your laundry.”
“Nothing new here. I fold my mom’s, too, you know.”
The coffee was ready when Sandra came back from stashing her laundry in her bedroom. They took the hot, dark brew out to the living room and sat on the sofa.
“No TV. Darned things are too expensive considering that the programs go off the air only a couple of hours after I get home. I listen to the radio. Just music. I still can’t follow Italian at normal speed.”
They happened to finish their coffee at just the same time. Their cups went down like a synchronized swimming routine. They looked at each other, then turned.
The kisses were hot and passionate. No tasks awaited them. They slipped their hands under each other’s shirts, as they reveled in the feel of their hair and skin sliding together.
They left the dirty cups on the coffee table and walked back to the bedroom arm in arm.
“I’ll fold that neatly, so you look good tomorrow,” she said as she pulled his shirt over his head…
(to be continued)