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The Etruscan Net

BOOK: The Etruscan Net
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Copyright & Information

The Etruscan Net

 

First published in 1969

© Estate of Michael Gilbert; House of Stratus 1969-2012

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

 

The right of Michael Gilbert to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.

 

This edition published in 2012 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.

 

Typeset by House of Stratus.

 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.

 

 
EAN
 
ISBN
 
Edition
 
 
0755105176
 
9780755105175
 
Print
 
 
0755131886
 
9780755131884
 
Kindle
 
 
0755132254
 
9780755132256
 
Epub
 

 

This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.

 

 

www.houseofstratus.com

About the Author

 

Born in Lincolnshire, England, Michael Francis Gilbert graduated in law from the University of London in 1937, shortly after which he first spent some time teaching at a prep-school which was followed by six years serving with the Royal Horse Artillery. During World War II he was captured following service in North Africa and Italy, and his prisoner-of-war experiences later leading to the writing of the acclaimed novel
‘Death in Captivity’
in 1952.

After the war, Gilbert worked as a solicitor in London, but his writing continued throughout his legal career and in addition to novels he wrote stage plays and scripts for radio and television. He is, however, best remembered for his novels, which have been described as witty and meticulously-plotted espionage and police procedural thrillers, but which exemplify realism.

HRF Keating stated that
‘Smallbone Deceased’
was amongst the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published.
“The plot,”
wrote Keating, “
is in every way as good as those of Agatha Christie at her best: as neatly dovetailed, as inherently complex yet retaining a decent credibility, and as full of cunningly-suggested red herrings.”
It featured Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who went on to appear in later novels and short stories, and another series was built around Patrick Petrella, a London based police constable (later promoted) who was fluent in four languages and had a love for both poetry and fine wine. Other memorable characters around which Gilbert built stories included Calder and Behrens. They are elderly but quite amiable agents, who are nonetheless ruthless and prepared to take on tasks too much at the dirty end of the business for their younger colleagues. They are brought out of retirement periodically upon receiving a bank statement containing a code.

Much of Michael Gilbert’s writing was done on the train as he travelled from home to his office in London:
“I always take a latish train to work,” he explained in 1980, “and, of course, I go first class. I have no trouble in writing because I prepare a thorough synopsis beforehand.”.
After retirement from the law, however, he nevertheless continued and also reviewed for
‘The Daily Telegraph’
, as well as editing
‘The Oxford Book of Legal Anecdotes’
.

Gilbert was appointed CBE in 1980. Generally regarded as ‘one of the elder statesmen of the British crime writing fraternity, he was a founder-member of the British Crime Writers’ Association and in 1988 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, before receiving the Lifetime ‘Anthony’ Achievement award at the 1990 Boucheron in London.

Michael Gilbert died in 2006, aged ninety three, and was survived by his wife and their two sons and five daughters.

Part One

The Net Opens

 

1

 

Monday Evening: Two Men

 

At ten minutes to seven that Monday evening, two men got out of the fast train from Rome at Florence main line station. Both were dressed in charcoal grey suits, cut in the Roman fashion, and carried bulging suitcases. Both, although it was a warm summer evening, wore gloves.

The first man out was tall and thin and had a face which first attracted your attention and then made you look away. It was difficult to be certain whether it had been broken up by nature or by hard wear. The nose was bent. The temples were hollowed out in a way which suggested skin stretched over vacancy. The sides of the face, from prominent cheek bones to pointed jaw, were seamed with creases which could have been natural, but had the look of scars.

The second man was of medium height, stout but not fat. With his rounded olive cheeks, soft brown eyes and sulky mouth, he had the look of a bad-tempered girl.

The two men were the last to dismount. Domenico, doyen of the Florence porters, had already escorted one party to the taxi-rank, and now came bustling back with his hand-truck and a genial, ‘
Valigie, signori
.’ The men, who were walking slowly along the platform, took no notice. They continued to walk.

Domenico was a Florentine, and of the truculent and independent nature for which that City is noted. Also, his seniority in the station demanded some recognition. He was on the point of making a sharp comment when something checked him. Recalling the incident afterwards, he found it difficult to say what it was. A look in the eye of the tall man? Or was it something less definable altogether? He thought of it as a smell. His brown nostrils wrinkled. He said, under his breath,
‘Mafiosi.’
But he waited until the men were twenty yards up the platform and out of earshot before he said it.

The crowd on the cross-section of the station was thinning out. The two men watched it without interest, and then, as if moved by a common thought, swung to the right, towards a row of new and empty telephone booths. The tall man selected the one next to the end, dumped his suitcase on the floor, and opened the directory on top of the telephone box, as though he was looking for a number. It might have been remarked, however, that it remained open at the page he had selected, and that his eyes were not on it, but on the glass back of the booth, which gave him a reflected view of the platform.

The stout man deposited the case outside the end booth, went in and closed the door carefully. Through the side panel, he could see his companion standing impassively. His brown eyes switched to the station clock. Their train had come in at six-fifty. The hour hand had now climbed to the top of the clock, and was on the point of descending.

Seven o’clock precisely.

He pressed the brass jeton into the slot, dialled a number, and listened.

A young woman approached the booths. The thin man, who had the door of his booth open, swung round and smiled at her, baring a row of broken and discoloured teeth. She moved away hastily.

The ringing tone at the other end stopped. There was a click, and a quiet voice said, ‘Yes, who is it?’

The stout man smiled but said nothing.

The voice at the other end said, ‘The house you want is on the left of the Sdrucciolo Benedetto. It runs between the Via dell’Anguillara and the Via Torta. The number of the house is seven. The owner lives there with his wife and daughter. The man you have to contact lives with the Zecchi family. His name is Dindoni. He is small, and walks with a limp. You can reach me at this number, at seven o’clock precisely, on any evening.’

There was a pause. The stout man still said nothing. Both receivers were replaced.

Operating with the same unanimity the men quit the telephone booths, headed for the exit and strolled out into the town.

Domenico watched them go. Then he propped his hand-cart against the wall, and walked across to the office of the Station Controller. The Carabiniere, in his smart dark blue uniform, was reading reports. He knew Domenico well, and listened to what he had to say. Then he shrugged his shoulders. ‘You may be right,’ he said. ‘I will report it. It is all that I can do.’

The two men left their suitcases at a pensione in the Via Porta Rossa, where the reception clerk seemed to be expecting them, pocketed their room keys, and walked out into the street.

They skirted the open spaces of the Piazza della Signoria, where guides were declaiming, groups of tourists were admiring the statuary, and the sellers of picture postcards were doing a busy trade, and plunged into the jigsaw of tiny streets which lay beyond.

The transition was extraordinary. It was like stepping from the bright and orderly spaces of a stage into the dark clutter of the wings. Here, the debris of the flood had not, even yet, been entirely cleared. When, on that evening in November, a roaring wall of grey and froth-flecked water had descended on Florence, this was the part of the town which had been first and hardest hit. And it was the part which the authorities had troubled least to repair, since no ordinary tourist would be likely to penetrate its dark mazes. The gratings of the basements at pavement level were still choked with a mixture of mud, twigs, and oil, set hard as cement. Doorways and windows were boarded. Broken lamp standards had not been replaced.

The Sdrucciolo Benedetto was a steep passageway so narrow that the tall buildings on either side seemed to roof it in. The men strolled past the end of it, and stopped.

The stout man said, ‘There is no need for both of us to catch the plague at the same time. We passed a café back there. Could we not take turns, half an hour at a time? I will watch first, if you like.’

The thin man nodded, and turned on his heel. It was more than an hour later when the door of No. 7 opened, and a man came out. He was small, the stout man noted with approval, and he walked with a limp. Dindoni came up the passageway and turned left down the Via Torta. This made things very easy, since his course must now take him past the café, where the second man would be on the look out. If he had gone any other way, the stout man would have had to follow him to his destination and come back for his companion.

Dindoni did not pass the café. He went into it, through the outer room, where the thin man was sitting reading a newspaper, and through a bead curtain at the back, into an inner room. As he went he threw a word at the girl behind the counter, and she smiled at him briefly. The stout man, who was a student of human nature, deduced that she knew him, but did not like him very much.

He signalled to the thin man, who picked up his drink, and the two of them followed Dindoni through the curtain. The backroom was small. It held a single table, and three or four chairs, and was reserved for privileged patrons.

Dindoni looked up as the men came through. He started to say something, and changed his mind. The girl came through the curtain and said, ‘This is a private room. I must ask you to leave.’ The tall man set his drink down on the table. In setting it down, a little had slopped out on to the surface. With one finger, he traced something idly in the moisture. It seemed to be the shape of the numeral 5, but lacking the bar at the top.

‘Are you deaf?’ said the girl angrily. ‘Must I say it again, or would you have me send for the patron?’

A further sweep of the tall man’s finger put a circle round the cedilla he had traced. The pattern seemed to be hypnotizing Dindoni. He wrenched his eyes away from it, and said to the girl, ‘Maria, these are friends of mine. I should be happy if they could share the hospitality of your room.’

‘Friends,’ she said scornfully. And saw suddenly that he was frightened.

‘Come now,’ said the stout man. ‘Drinks for all of us. Grappa Toscana for myself, and for my friend. For you too, Signor Dindoni? For Maria?’

The girl muttered, ‘For me, nothing,’ and went out through the curtain. As she poured from the bottle into three glasses she noticed, angrily, that her own hand was shaking.

 

In the sub-station in the Via dei Bardi, Carabiniere Scipione, a thick-set, black-haired Sicilian, his young-looking face bisected by a line of black moustache, sat laboriously filling up a report form. Tenete Lupo came in, a sheaf of papers in his hand. He picked out one and tossed it on to the table.

‘There is a note,’ he said, ‘from the Stazione Centrale. Two men arrived on the Rapido from Rome at ten to seven. They made a telephone call, and then walked out into the town. They had some luggage, and it seemed they might be intending to stay. The report describes them as “suspicious”. I wonder why?’

Scipione recognized the question as rhetorical, and said nothing.

‘Perhaps it is worth checking. At main line stations they have a nose for these things. Tomorrow let me see all new hotel registrations.’

Scipione said, ‘The Lieutenant realizes that there will be several hundred of them. All these tourists–’

‘Try and employ the brains that God has given you,’ said Tenete Lupo kindly. ‘These two men were Italians. Therefore you may omit all Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Danes, Norwegians, Spaniards – no, on reflection, possibly you may keep the Spaniards.’

BOOK: The Etruscan Net
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