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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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Friday Afternoon: A Meeting is Arranged


Harfield Moss sat in his hotel room, writing a letter to his associate, Leopold Cranfield, co-director with him of the Moss Artistic Foundation at Pittsburg.

‘–I’m as certain as I can be that something big is breaking. Something really big. Every contact I have in this town and in Rome says the same thing. It could be a Regioni-Galassi all over again. When I say that it
breaking, I could, of course, be wrong. It may have broken already. There’s a recently developed technique, which allows the investigator to get an idea of what is inside a tomb, long before he actually reaches it. Exploratory drillings are made, from the surface of the tumulus. It’s not unlike looking for oil. When the drill breaks through the solid rock, or tufa, or packed earth, into an open space, it is taken out and an implement is lowered into the bore-hole which can illuminate and take photographs. That way, a very good idea can be got in advance of what will be discovered
the tomb is opened. In the case of a really big find, there would most likely be two openings, not one. The first, as you can appreciate, would be highly unofficial! The choicest objects would be extracted, particularly the gold and silver, and the jewellery. The opening would then be carefully resealed, and a second, official, break-in take place, with all the hoo-ha of press publicity. Experts from all countries flock to the place. Photographs are taken, and learned papers are written, and the contents of the tomb are deposited in one or other of the museums in this country, with considerable
The really valuable things, extracted at the first opening, will meanwhile have been sold to the dealers, and spirited out of the country, ending up in private collections. This time, I am determined that the best of them shall end up in the Moss Foundation, so don’t be surprised if I requisition a very considerable credit, in the near future, at the Banca Toscana. It’s not going to be easy. I fancy the Rossis and Bernasconis both know what’s cooking, and their agents are already in Florence. So keep your fingers crossed–’


When Broke came home for lunch that day he knew, as soon as he saw her, that Tina had something she wanted to say to him. He knew, also, that her sense of propriety would prevent her from saying it until lunch had been served.

It came as he was finishing the pasta.

‘Would I

said Broke.

‘It is a great piece of presumption on my father’s part,’ said Tina.

‘It’s such a curious way of doing things. Why doesn’t he just come up here? That was an excellent glass of wine he gave me. I’d like to return his hospitality.’

‘He cannot come here.’

‘Why not?’

Tina sighed. ‘He says he is being followed. If he tried to see you here, the men who are following him would prevent him.’

Broke laid down his knife and fork and stared at her. ‘If he is being followed or interfered with, tell the Police.’

‘The Police could not arrest the men who are following him.’

‘Why on earth not?’

‘Because they exist only in his imagination.’

During this, Broke had kept his eyes fixed on Tina. In fact, he was not thinking about her at all. He was glimpsing the terrifying bogies of loneliness and old age. But she shifted awkwardly under the stare of his grey eyes. She said, ‘It was an impertinence. Take no notice of it. He is getting very old, and shaky. He is a craftsman, you understand. And when a craftsman loses his cunning, and his occupation is gone, it throws him back upon himself, and he begins to imagine things. As his hand becomes less steady, his brain becomes less steady too.’

he losing his skill? The last work he did for me was some of his best.’

‘He can still work well, but he breaks things. Mercurio said–’ She stopped suddenly as she remembered what Mercurio
said, and the blood rushed into her cheeks.

‘Well,’ Broke teased her, ‘what did Mercurio say to you?’

She told him. Broke did not laugh with her, when she had finished her account of the very half-hearted effort of seduction. He said, ‘I have met the young man. Speaking for myself, I neither like him, nor trust him.’

É un finocchio
,’ said Tina, as if this concluded the matter once and for all, and stalked out of the room with the dirty plates.

Broke had never heard the word before. Clearly Tina could not be asked about it. It was plain from her demeanour, when she came back with the next course, that she had reverted to her role of hand-maiden and regarded the topic as closed. He put the point to Commander Comber, who blew into the shop that afternoon to borrow a book on type-faces. The Commander roared with laughter.

He said, ‘“
” means fennel. It’s a sort of herb. I trust no one’s been using the term about you.’

‘What’s so funny about it?’

‘It also means pansy. Don’t ask me why. Come to think of it, why do
call pansies pansies?’

‘Tina used it when she was describing Mercurio.’

‘A very perceptive description, I should say. What’s he been up to?’

‘As far as I could understand it, he proposed a platonic arrangement. If she would decorate his evenings out, he would put in a good word for her father.’

‘She’s a damned attractive girl,’ said the Commander. ‘I wonder her mother allows her alone in the house with you.’

Broke said, ‘Don’t talk nonsense. Are you going to buy that book?’

‘Certainly not. It’s much too expensive. I just wanted to look up a word in it.’

Some evenings a cold
was left for Broke at home; on other evenings, such as this, he ate out, at one of the many little family restaurants in or around the Piazza della Signoria.

He had finished his meal, and was crossing the Square, when a man on the pavement ahead of him stopped so suddenly that he ran into him.

Broke apologized, the man swung round, and he saw that it was Labro, the overseer from the Bronzini farm, and that he was drunk. He was not too drunk, however to recognize Broke.

‘Well met, signore,’ he said. ‘I had been hoping that I should encounter your Lordship before long.’

Broke side-stepped, and walked on.

‘So now you turn tail, and run, my brave Englishman.’

Broke continued on his way. Labro broke into a shuffling run, caught him up, and grabbed him by the arm. Broke swung round, breaking his hold, and said, ‘Go away.’

‘We are not in the army now. You do not give orders to me. If I wish to speak, I will speak.’

Broke sighed. The street was empty for some way in either direction. He could run, and probably outdistance Labro. But that would be undignified. He could knock him down, but Labro was undoubtedly drunk, and it went against the grain. Or he could listen to him.

He said, ‘If you have something to say, I will listen. But don’t take all night about it.’

‘Fine,’ said Labro. ‘Excellent. You will listen.’

‘But stop grabbing my coat. I’m not going to run away.’

‘First, let me tell you, that I have been dismissed from my job, by Signor Ferri. I care nothing for Signor Ferri; or for his master, Professor Bruno–’ Labro proceeded to describe Danilo Ferri and the Professor. Broke hardly understood one word in five of the gutter Italian, but was left in no doubt of Labro’s opinion of his employers. ‘To cease to serve such people is a blessing. But there is another side to it. For a man must live.’

I thought money was going to come into it somewhere, thought Broke. He could see a distant figure patrolling towards them.

‘Money is always difficult,’ said Labro, ‘I am not a beggar, I am not asking for money for charity. But I have something to sell. Something of great value, to the right person.’

‘Yes?’ Twenty yards to go.

‘To someone interested in the affairs of antiquity.’

‘If you have something you wish to sell me, come to my house in the morning. You will find me in the directory. Meanwhile, good night.’

Larbo started to say something, realized that he was being observed, by a sardonic carabiniere, thumbs hooked in his black leather belt, and shuffled off down the pavement. Broke proceeded on his way. The carabiniere watched both men, turning his head slowly, from one to the other, as though memorizing their faces.

He was a big young man. He had smooth black hair and his face was bisected by a line of black moustache.

At a quarter to ten Broke backed his car out of the garage, and drove up the Viale, using dipped headlights. The rush of traffic had thinned out, and the last of the stall-holders on the Piazzale Michelangiolo had sold the last copy of the Statue of David, closed up his stall and gone home to count his profits. Broke turned into the Viale Galileo, still climbing, and brought the car to rest in the lay-by at the head of the Via Canina.

He got out and sat on the parapet. Below him, to left and right, as far as the eyes could see, the lights of Florence filled the valley. A shaving of new moon hung in the sky.

‘On such a night as this, when the sweet wind did softly kiss the trees, and they did make no noise.’ But you could still hear the unsleeping traffic of Florence’s narrow streets, muffled by the distance, like a bee in a bottle.

What had Labro wanted to sell him? Information, or some Etruscan relic, filched from the digging? Or nothing at all, like the beggar in the street who offered you a box of matches and was hurt if you took it?

The clocks of Florence started to say ten o’clock.

A car passed the end of the street, slowed, as if to pull into the lay-by, changed its mind, and drove on. Broke smiled to himself. A courting couple, he guessed, cursing him and now looking for somewhere else to park.

His own courting had been swift and, on the face of it unromantic. He had met Joanie when he was spending a duty weekend with his elder sister, Felicia, at Ware. They had gone for a walk after tea, and had discovered a sheep with its head stuck in a wire fence. It was whilst they were releasing the wildly kicking animal that he had decided he liked her. Liking her had gone on for a month. Then he had discovered he wanted her. They were married two months later. And, by God, it had been a right thing, from the very start. Better not to think too much about it. Bury it. Try to forget about it.

When Broke looked at his watch it was nearly half past ten. He had no sensation of time having gone past. It was evident that Milo was not coming that night. He climbed back into the car, feeling stiff and cold, and drove slowly off, down the Via Canina, passing the cemetery on one side and the row of shuttered houses on the other.

The road was badly lit, with long patches of darkness between the lamps. The surface was bumpy too, and at one point the near-side tyre caught in a break in the flagstones, and nearly wrenched the steering wheel out of his hand. He pulled the car back on to the crown of the road and drove carefully until he was back in the Viale.

He backed his car into the garage, turned the engine off and the lights out and sat in it, for a few minutes, as if unwilling to get out. This was the hardest part of all, coming back to an empty house. He had a feeling that it was not going to be a good night.

His first sleep was broken by his neighbours’ dog, Benito, a temperamental Alsatian, who lived in a kennel and had the run of the garden behind the garage. Benito seemed to be having a bad night, too.

After that it was a long, dim sequence of turning from one side to another, seeking comfort where no comfort was to be found. It was the sort of night in which half-dreams mingle with dreams, running together into an endless cinema show of fact and fantasy, as the mind ticks over, hovering between consciousness and oblivion.

The grey light was creeping back into the sky before he fell into a proper sleep.



Saturday, Early Morning: In the Via Canina


The sun climbed slowly from behind the mountains. The sky was of that clear and innocent blue which carries with it a threat of rain to come. The first rays struck the gilded summit of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, then, as the sun climbed higher, they tilted slowly downwards, lighting up the high buildings, penetrating into the courts and back streets, edging their way into cracks and corners.

The Via Canina is one of the oldest streets in Florence. Age has sunk it below the surrounding surface. The eastern side is bounded by the low brick wall and iron railing of the Cimitero di San Antonio, a forest of white crosses and crooked cherubim; the left hand side a continuous row of very old houses, some of them condemned, shuttered, and empty, a few of them still occupied.

The sun cleared the eastern edge of the street, lighting up the space between the cemetery wall and the street itself, a narrow strip of pavement and deep gutter.

In the gutter lay a bundle of old clothes. The sun inspected it carefully before passing on. First, a pair of boots, toe-caps twisted inwards, boot heels outward. Then a pair of trousers and an old jacket. The far end of the bundle looked like a child’s pink and white woolly ball, but it was barred with stripes of a darker colour.

The door of one of the occupied houses opened and a woman came out, yawning. She crossed the street, started to walk up the pavement and stopped when she saw the bundle.

Her mouth opened slowly, as if she was going to yawn again, but what came out was a scream.

Part Two

The Net Closes






Life in the Royal Navy had taught Commander Comber the advantages of order and method. In his tiny flat, which occupied the top floor of a decaying
in the Borgo San Jacopo, everything was as neat and as deftly arranged as it had been in the cabin of the Loch-class frigate which had been his last sea-going command.

One wall was totally made up of cupboards with sliding doors, and another was covered by shelves of books, predominantly gazetteers and standard works of reference. Two of the shelves were taken up with the brown volumes of the
Dictionary of National Biography
and another one with the last English Edition of the
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
There was a model of the
Loch Gair
on the mantelshelf, with a Toby Jug, two silver cups for archery, and a travelling clock subscribed for by the lower deck on his retirement.

By ten o’clock that Sunday morning the Commander had finished his breakfast and his after-breakfast pipe, and washed up, dried up and stacked away the breakfast things, tidied the bunk which occupied one end of his tiny bedroom, and was settling down to work at the desk in the window.

An observer might have found his work odd. It seemed to consist of search through books of reference, the marking of selected points in them with a pencil and the final production of a meaningless jumble of words on the sheet of paper in front of him.

Tiring of this, the Commander took down an old brown book with a well-used look about it, and opened it almost at random.


Now from the rock Tarpeian

Could the wan burghers spy

The line of blazing villages

Red in the midnight sky

The fathers of the City

They sat all night and day –


He paused in his reading to jot down, ‘First example of an all-night sitting of Parliament?’ The thought seemed to cause him some amusement.


– And every hour some horseman came

With tidings of dismay


Footsteps outside. Someone was coming up the final flight of steps, and coming fast. He slid the piece of paper on which he had been working into the drawer of the desk, locked the drawer, and had crossed to the door and opened it before the knock came.

It was Tina.

‘Well,’ said the Commander. ‘Come right in. It’s Tina Zecchi, isn’t it? You aren’t, by any chance, bringing tidings of dismay?’

‘I–’ said Tina, and could get no further.

‘Sit down. Those stairs aren’t meant to be run up.’


‘Can I fetch you a glass of water? Take a deep breath. Take several deep breaths.’

Tina had got herself under control. She said, ‘It is Signor Roberto. They have taken him away.’

‘Who has taken him away?’

‘The Police. They came last night. I heard it this morning from Signora Colli next door. They took his car.’

‘Let’s have this in some sort of order,’ said the Commander, in exactly the tones he would have employed if a midshipman had come bursting into his cabin to tell him that the enemy was in sight on the starboard bow. ‘Do I gather that when you went to Broke’s house this morning, one of his neighbours told you that he’s been arrested.’

‘Signora Colli told me. She had a great affection for Signor Broke. She was in tears.’

‘We’ll take the tears for granted. Let’s have the facts, what time was he arrested?’

‘Late. Very late last night.’

‘Does anybody know what for?’

‘It was something to do with his car. They took that away, too.’

‘They took him away in his car?’

‘No. Signora Colli said that the car was taken separately. It was taken on a big lorry.’

‘Had it broken down then?’

‘No. The signora says it was in good order. Signor Broke had used it the day before.’

The Commander thought about this. It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. He said, ‘We must go and see the Consul.’

Sir Gerald was in his garden, snipping off dead roses with a pair of secateurs. Elizabeth brought the Commander and Tina out to him, and he listened to what they had to say, occasionally clicking the secateurs like an angry stag-beetle. He, too, seemed puzzled about the car.

‘If it was in running order, why didn’t they drive it away? Why put it on a lorry?’

‘It wasn’t a lorry,’ said the Commander. ‘It was one of those transporters. They used them a lot after the flood, you remember. To cart off derelict cars.’

‘It looks as though whatever he’s been arrested for has got something to do with the car.’

‘Wouldn’t they tell you, if you asked them?’

‘I’ll get on to Colonel Nobile at once,’ said Sir Gerald.


Colonel Nobile, head of the Florence City Police, was a tall, thin, serious man. He had been captured by the British, during Wavell’s first offensive, and had spent four years in a Senior Officers’ prison camp in Kenya. The Commandant of that camp had been the Earl of Plaistow, a Major in the Grenadier Guards, and Colonel Nobile had found him sympathetic. Both were chess enthusiasts, and they had played and talked long into the African nights. By the time the war ended the Colonel had acquired a fluent and idiomatic grasp of English as spoken in Knightsbridge and the Shires. He had acquired most of the Camp Commandant’s prejudices, too. One of these was a mistrust of British officials.

‘Box-wallahs.’ He could hear the Major saying it as he fingered his black bishop thoughtfully. ‘Of course they’re clever. You’ve got to hand it to them. They’re trained to it.’ He had tickled his long blond moustache with the bishop’s mitre. ‘The first year I was here we had one of those Intelligence Johnnies round. Do you know what? He wanted to disguise himself as a camp orderly and see if he could worm his way into the confidence of the prisoners.
prisoners. Extract military information from them. Of course, I said “no”. There was a bit of a row about it, actually. They tried to stellenbosch me. I got straight on to our Colonel Commandant in London and he pulled a few strings at the Palace and quashed it. Thank God we’ve still got
discipline in the Brigade.’

Deciding it was too dangerous to promote the bishop the Major had pushed forward a pawn instead. ‘Stellenbosch? It means dismiss. Sack. Place in South Africa they sent military failures to.’ Colonel Nobile had added the expression to his growing vocabulary and had added, with it, a fixed idea about the British. Their official classes were clever. More than clever. They were masters of duplicity and deceit. The only way of dealing with them was to be non-committal and wary. Otherwise, one might find oneself stellenbosched.

Therefore, when Sir Gerald, having ascertained that the Colonel was not in his office, drove out to visit him at his house on the Bellosguardo, he was received with great cordiality, and achieved nothing.

‘My dear fellow,’ said the Colonel, ‘I’m dashed sorry that this should have happened. I haven’t been told all the details, but I expect that a few inquiries will clear it all up. Don’t worry. He’ll be quite comfortable. We don’t keep our prisoners chained to the wall in damp dungeons you know, ha ha!’

‘Can I see him?’

‘There’s some sort of tiresome regulation about that. The Police have to complete their interrogation first. Stupid, no doubt. But rules are rules.’

‘How long’s it going to take?’

‘Not more than a day or two, at the outside. I’ll send you a chit as soon as you can get in to see him. I promise you. What about a spot of something before lunch?’

Sir Gerald refused and drove back in a bad temper. He found Elizabeth, the Commander, and Tom Proctor waiting for him.

‘Stupid old coot,’ said Sir Gerald. ‘Talks like a comedy guardsman and is as obstructive as an octopus. My predecessor warned me about him.’

‘Surely,’ said Proctor, ‘there’s nothing to get alarmed about. The Police can’t hold Broke without making a charge, and
they make a charge, we shall know what it’s all in aid of. There’s certainly been a mistake. We know Robert. He wouldn’t do anything bad.’

‘This is Italy, not England,’ said the Commander. ‘In Italy, you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.’

‘There’s an element of truth in that,’ said Sir Gerald. ‘We’ve got a State prosecuting machine here. The Procuratore della Republica runs it – Benzoni, quite a decent old boy, incidentally, but he wouldn’t have much to do personally with minor cases. Under him there’s a whole gaggle of
giudice istruttori
, assistant
, minor court officials, prosecuting counsel, and policemen.’

‘And all of them,’ said the Commander, ‘devoted to one object – getting a conviction.’

‘You’re exaggerating,’ said Elizabeth.

‘I’m not, you know. It’s a fact of life out here. If the Police bring a charge – it doesn’t matter what it is – anything from parking in the wrong slot to assassinating the President – they’ve
to make it stick. If they don’t, it’s a crack in the fabric of the Republic. And a nail in the coffin of the officials concerned. In all the time I’ve been out here I’ve never known anyone actually acquitted. If you’re clearly innocent they find you guilty and give you a suspended sentence. That way, everybody’s face is saved.’

‘You’re talking nonsense,’ said Elizabeth, and stalked off into the house. She sounded quite upset. The three men stood looking after her in silence for a few moments. Then Sir Gerald said, ‘Well, there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do until Monday, does there? Perhaps I will have that drink after all.’


Monday morning brought an unexpected visitor to the Consulate offices on the Lungarno. Professor Bruno Bronzini came to the point without any of his customary flourishes.

He said, ‘I was desolated to learn from my son Mercurio – he had the news from Tina Zecchi – it is correct? – yes, I feared as much. It seemed clear to me, from my short acquaintance with Mr Broke, that some stupid mistake must have been made. What is he charged with?’

‘If I knew that, I should be a lot happier,’ said Sir Gerald. ‘So far, I haven’t been allowed to see him.’

‘That is ridiculous, and shall be remedied.’

‘Can you do it?’

‘Certainly I can do it. Was he arrested by the Police or by the Carabinieri?’

‘By the Police, I understand.’

‘Then it will be Colonel Nobile who has the responsibility.’

‘I’ve spoken to the Colonel. He wasn’t very co-operative.’

‘He will co-operate with
said the Professor. ‘You will receive a telephone call shortly.’

The call came at midday. It was Colonel Nobile himself. He said, ‘My dear fellow, I’m glad to tell you that I have been able to sever the red tape. You can visit your compatriot as soon as you like. He is still in the Questura. Ask for me when you come, and I will see that all is arranged.’

‘Well, that’s very civil of you,’ said Sir Gerald. ‘I’ll come straight round.’ He found Robert Broke, in charge of a youthful-looking
agente di polizia
, in one of the interior rooms on the ground floor of the Questura.

‘Can I speak to Mr Broke alone?’ asked Sir Gerald.

smiled, and shook his head.

‘It’s all right,’ said Broke. ‘I don’t think he understands much English. Nice of you to come and see me so quickly.’ He sounded quite cheerful.

‘What’s it all about?’

‘The idea seems to be that I knocked down old Milo Zecchi, with my car, and failed to stop.’

‘Milo? The father of the girl who works for you?’

‘That’s right.’

‘When’s this supposed to have happened?’

‘On Friday night.’

‘And it’s not true.’

‘As a matter of fact,’ said Broke, ‘it isn’t. But it’s an odd coincidence, all the same. I
out in the car that night. And I
meeting Milo.’

‘You met Milo?’

‘I didn’t meet him, because he didn’t turn up. Look here, I’d better tell you this from the beginning.’

He did so. Sir Gerald was a practised listener. He was listening to the tone of the voice as much as to the facts themselves. At the end of it he said, ‘So you did actually drive down the Via Canina?’

‘Yes, I did.’

‘And you didn’t see him?’

‘I didn’t see anyone.’

‘Tell me what happened then.’

‘Two policemen called. The first time was just before lunch. They asked me a lot of questions. I told them what I’ve just told you. They asked to look at my car, and seemed very excited when they spotted that the fog-lamp was broken.’

‘When did that happen?’

‘That’s the odd thing,’ said Broke. ‘I hadn’t noticed it before.’

‘When do you suppose it happened?’

‘I’ve no idea. When I took the car out that night, I hadn’t used it for two days. I suppose it could have been broken without me noticing it. Children throwing stones. Something like that.’

Sir Gerald didn’t like this much, but decided to leave it. He said, ‘If this accident happened on Friday night, and the Police were round questioning you by lunch-time on Saturday, they must have had a pretty hot tip. It almost looks as if someone must have given them the number of your car.’

‘I don’t follow you.’

‘What I meant was, if someone had seen the accident, and said that the car involved was a large dark saloon, or an open tourer, or something vague like that, it would have taken them months to narrow down the field. But they got to you in a matter of hours.’

‘I see.’ Broke didn’t sound very interested. ‘And where does that take us?’

‘Going on the assumption that you didn’t do this thing–’ he paused for a second – ‘on that assumption, it means that someone reported that a car with your number was involved. Either by mistake, or out of spite. Can you think of anyone who dislikes you enough to want to get you into trouble?’

‘I’ve trodden on a few toes since I’ve been out here,’ said Broke grimly. ‘But they’ve been mostly in the upper echelons of the art world. Not the sort of people to pull a trick like that, I shouldn’t have thought. The only person–’

BOOK: The Etruscan Net
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