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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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He picked up the book and continued to read.

 

By midnight Florence was aglow with lights and bonfires, but the night was calm, and there seemed no danger of the general conflagaration which Miss Plant had feared. It was all the more inexplicable that farmer Pietro Agostini, whose holding lay a full five kilometres outside the city bounds, coming out for a final inspection of his outhouses, should have found a hay and fern stack already well alight.

He bawled for his wife, who came running.

‘Telephone for the fire brigade.’

‘What use,’ said his wife. ‘The brigades will all be fully occupied in the town. It will burn out. We are well insured.’

‘As long as the sparks catch nothing else,’ said Agostini. He moved nearer the rick, and sniffed.

‘How do you suppose it happened?’ said his wife. ‘Perhaps one of the men was careless with a cigarette. I have warned them before. What is the matter?’

‘The matter,’ said Agostini, ‘is that I can smell petrol. Come closer.’

He shielded his hand against the heat which was building up. His wife sidled up to him. She, too, could smell the pungent reek.

Her scream and her husband’s shout of horror came together. A truss of blazing straw fell away and showed them, projecting from the heart of the fire, a single human leg.

Agostini darted forward, realized that he could do nothing, and fell back, swearing.

He could see, more clearly as the flames threw up more light, that the foot at the end of the leg wore a curiously shaped brown boot with a built-up surgical sole.

Part Three

The Wheels Turn

 

1

 

Colonel Doria

 

On 17 July the political correspondent of
Osservatore Romano
reported that the President of the Republic had spent two hours in conclave with Doctor Pasquale, head of the Christian Democrat Party. He gave his readers a summary of the discussions which had taken place behind closed doors at the Quirinale. Since the political correspondent had certainly not been invited to be present at this discussion, much of the report must have been intelligent guesswork, depending on the device, well-known to political correspondents, of stating, as fact, matters which, given certain premises, must logically transpire.

The elections, so recently and hectically concluded, had produced no clear-cut mandate for any party. The Christian Democrats had suffered marginal losses. Their normal allies, the loosely knit collection who called themselves, with singular inaccuracy, the United Socialists, had lost nearly a third of their seats. Almost the whole of these had gone to the Communists, who were now, by some way, the largest minority party in the Chamber of Deputies.

The United Socialists had apparently concluded that this electoral set-back was due to acting for too long as fifth wheel to the chariot of the Christian Democrats, attracting to themselves most of the unpopularity which tends to gather round a coalition. They had therefore refused to take part in the caretaker government which, as was customary, followed the elections.

The problem before the President, said the
Osservatore
’s correspondent, underlining the obvious with a heavy pencil, was to persuade the leader of the Christian Democrats to form at least a loose alliance with the Communists, in order to produce a government which would not be outvoted in the chamber every day of the week. It would not be a coalition. Neither party was ready for that. It would be a working arrangement.

What was, however, quite clear, was that the Communists would not co-operate unless they were given some substantial inducement to do so. This inducement must include one or more of the key ministries. The price which the Communists were thought to be demanding was the Ministry of the Interior. ‘Was that,’ asked the writer, ‘too heavy a price to pay?’

Since the two hours of discussion resulted in no apparent moves, he concluded that it was. But stalemate had not yet been reached. After all, there were other ministries – the Exterior; Grace and Justice; Defence; Agriculture.

‘The next few days,’ the correspondent had written in the original version of his article, ‘will no doubt reveal which of these important posts is to be handed over to a party which has, in the past, openly dedicated itself to the destruction of the machinery of government and justice.’

The Editor, however, reflecting that they might yet see a Communist as Minister of the Interior, had prudently deleted this final comment.

 

‘I cannot disguise from you,’ said Avvocato Riccasoli sadly, ‘that it constitutes a heavy blow to our hopes. If we had available to us the testimony of Dindoni, however unwillingly given, I should have rated our chances high. Now that he is gone, I scarcely like to give you too much encouragement.’

‘I take it there’s no doubt that it was Dindoni,’ said the Commander.

The conference was taking place in his flat. Elizabeth looked depressed. Tina had been crying.

‘It is true,’ said Riccasoli, ‘that by the time the fire was finally brought under control, early on the following morning – this I had from the farmer – the body was almost entirely consumed. But three facts are inescapable. First, that Dindoni has completely disappeared. Secondly, that an examination of the bone structure of the body shows a deformed hip. And finally, that the farmer, in the instant before the fire took control, clearly saw a brown boot with a surgical sole such as Dindoni was wearing.’

‘I think we should be deceiving ourselves,’ said Elizabeth, ‘if we went on any other assumption. Dindoni is dead.’

‘Agreed,’ said the Commander. ‘But because we’ve lost a battle, it doesn’t follow that we’ve lost the war. What about Maria?’

‘When Maria went back to the café and found that Dindoni, for reasons, incidentally, which are still unexplained, had left the house, she was sensible enough to telephone me at once. I invited her round to my house. She was in a state of hysteria, but my wife succeeded in calming her. The following morning I took steps to place her in safe custody.’

‘Where is she?’

Riccasoli hesitated.

‘All right,’ said the Commander. ‘We’re all on the same side here. But I agree. The less people who know, the less chance of it getting out. Let’s leave it that you’ve got her safe for the moment. What’s the next step?’

‘The next step, which I have already put in hand, is to arrange for Maria to make a sworn statement of all that she knows, in front of a notary. Then, should anything unfortunate happen to her, too, we shall at least have a statement in a form which would be admissible in a Court of Justice.’

‘Surely you’ll have more than that,’ said the Commander, springing up. ‘It will take us a long way down the course. Almost into the straight.’

Riccasoli, as a student of human nature, took pleasure in observing the Commander. His abrupt but decisive movements; his naval and sporting metaphors; the piratical jut of his beard, all corresponding so exactly to his conception of an officer in the Royal Navy. Now, however, he shook his head sadly. ‘It will not,’ he said, ‘get us to the winning post. It will scarcely get us past the first flag.’

‘They were confederates,’ said the Commander. ‘Either of them can tell us as much about it as the other. It might only be secondhand evidence in Court, but we shall, at least, know what happened.’

‘You forget,’ said Riccasoli, ‘that I have already spoken to Maria. To have the statement recorded is only a formal precaution. What she knows, I already know, and it is not very much. Her part in this plot was a small one.’

‘Plot!’ said Elizabeth looking up. ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone use the word. Then Robert didn’t do this thing. There
was
a plot.’

‘Certainly there was a plot. A very carefully worked out plot, involving more than one person. A plot composed by professionals, who took great care that each person involved knew only sufficient to play their own part. Maria, for instance, had a small, but important role. It was necessary that the Police should get to Signor Broke without delay. For consider – if there had been a delay only of a few days, he might have taken his car to the garage, to have it serviced and cleaned. To have the broken fog-lamp repaired. What more natural? But by so doing, he would have destroyed, quite innocently, the main part of the evidence against him.’ He swivelled round in his chair, turned his soft brown eyes on Elizabeth, and repeated, ‘Quite innocently, you understand.’

‘Yes,’ said Elizabeth.

‘The only convincing way to direct the Police immediately to Signor Broke, was that someone should have been passing in the street, and should have noticed the number of the car. But
why
should a casual passer-by notice it? True, it was an English car, of uncommon make. But that is not very convincing.
But if one saw, and heard, the accident.
The squeal of brakes, the scream of skidding tyres, that would make one take notice. Yes?’

‘It would also fix the time of the accident,’ said the Commander. ‘I mean, it would appear to fix it. At a time when Broke was known to have been driving down the road.’

‘That is so.’

‘Whereas the cemetery keeper, who had absolutely no reason to lie, puts the whole thing an hour later.’

‘Also true.’

‘Well, I mean to say, that clears the whole thing up, doesn’t it? They simply took Broke’s car out of the garage – after he was in bed – the dog heard ’em doing it, and kicked up a fuss – and used it to run over Milo.’

‘Yes, but–’ said Elizabeth.

The Commander had evidently begun to see some of the difficulties, too.

‘Remember,’ said Riccasoli, ‘that two facts are clear from indisputable scientific evidence. First, that Milo was hit by the car. Second, that he did not die for some two hours
after
he was hit. How did they induce him to be at this particular point at half past eleven at night? It is certain that he would never have gone there willingly. Do you suggest, perhaps, that they bound him, hand and foot, laid him in the road, ran over him, and then removed the bonds?’

‘I wouldn’t put anything past those two thugs we’ve heard about,’ growled the Commander.

‘I agree. But it would be scientifically impossible. First, the signs of the ligatures would have been quite apparent. Secondly, he was
not
run over. He was
hit
, by the car. Thirdly, if they left him alive after the accident, they were surely taking an appalling risk. He might have recovered. If not entirely, certainly enough to speak.’

‘I give you the last point,’ said the Commander. ‘But as for the first two, there was no need actually to tie him up. Could they not have threatened him, with a knife or a gun, and made him walk down the road?’

‘Never,’ said Tina. ‘Never would he have done it. However many guns they had pointed at him, he would have fought and struggled. He would not have gone like a lamb to the slaughter.’

‘Also, it would have been entirely impractical,’ said Riccasoli. ‘You are threatened with a gun, and ordered to stand, just so, in the middle of the road. You hear a car coming. Do you continue to stand? Certainly not. You jump to one side. If you are shot, what matters. It is no worse than being run over.’

Elizabeth said, ‘That’s not the real difficulty. If we now think that Milo was killed and Robert was framed
for the same reason
– I mean, because they had to be stopped from having this talk, or the whole story of the Etruscan tomb and the planted “relics” would have to come out – then it means that the master-mind behind this plot must have been Professor Bronzini.’

‘Well?’ said the Commander.

‘I’ve never met him myself,’ said Elizabeth. ‘But I’ve heard plenty of stories about him, and you’ve met him, more than once, Commander. Could you honestly describe him as a master criminal capable of organizing – how did you describe it, Avvocato – a carefully worked-out plot – a plot composed by professionals?’

The Commander said, ‘Perhaps he’s a damned good actor.’ But he said it without a great deal of conviction.

 

It was at about the time that this conversation was taking place that Carabiniere Scipione received a shock.

He was sitting in the office in the Via dei Bardi filling in the nightly returns from hotels and boarding houses when the door opened and a stranger walked in.

This was a middle-aged man, of medium size, with black hair, soberly dressed. Scipione said, ‘Well?’ and continued with his work. The stranger said, ‘I would like to see the officer in charge of this station.’

‘Tenete Lupo is busy. Perhaps you will tell me your business.’

‘And perhaps I will do nothing of the sort,’ said the stranger.

Scipione looked up. Although the man was smiling, there was an undertone to his voice which sounded a warning. He said sharply, ‘Your name and business?’

The man put his hand into his pocket, took out a note case, extracted a card, all with due deliberation, and laid it on the table.

Scipione sprang to his feet. In his agitation he nearly knocked over the table. He said, ‘A thousand apologies, Colonel. I will go myself.’ As he reached the door it opened, and Tenente Lupo came in. Without a word, Scipione thrust out the card. The Tenente read it, and came forward with a smile.

‘Colonel Doria,’ he said. ‘You are from Rome. Your name is known to me, although we have never met.’

‘The omission has now been remedied,’ said Colonel Doria. He sat down, and motioned the Tenente to be seated also. Scipione remained standing stiffly to attention. ‘I should, perhaps, tell you why I am here. I have a letter from our Comandante-in-Capo, at Rome, which will establish my credentials. That is not important. It will not explain that he himself is acting under orders. The orders of the Minister of Defence.’ Colonel Doria paused, and added deliberately, ‘The
new
Minister of Defence.’

‘The new Minister?’

‘I see that you have not yet got the midday edition of the
Osservatore.’
He took a folded newspaper from his pocket and laid it on the table, indicating the passage in question. Tenente Lupo read it quickly. When he spoke the words were carefully neutral, but it was clear that he had suffered a shock.

‘The Ministry of Defence in the new government has been offered to Antonio Lungo.’

‘Not only offered. Accepted. I understand.’

‘He is of the Communist party.’

‘Our new master,’ said Colonel Doria, selecting his words with equal care, ‘is of that party. He has, I believe, known for some time that he would be selected for this post. That has enabled him to make certain immediate decisions. He has, for instance, expressed himself as dissatisfied with the handling, by his predecessor, of this case of the Englishman, Broke, which has attracted such publicity in the press. He has studied the papers personally, and I have been ordered to take charge of the investigation.’

The silence in the room was broken by a slight movement from Carabiniere Scipione, which seemed to call the Colonel’s attention to him. He said, ‘Perhaps we could continue this conversation in your private office, Tenente?’

Scipione held the door open for them. His face was as crimson as if it had been smacked.

When they were resettled, Colonel Doria said, ‘As a first step, it will, I fear, be necessary to remove that young man from the case.’

‘An excellent man in every way,’ said Tenente Lupo, stiffly.

‘No doubt,’ said the Colonel. ‘But a Sicilian.’

‘The implication being–?’

‘I imply nothing. But I, too, have read the papers. There are, at this moment, two dangerous professional criminals in Florence. They arrived some three weeks ago. Their arrival was reported to you by your office at the station.’

BOOK: The Etruscan Net
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