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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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‘Yes?’

‘It’s so stupid. I was going to say that the only person who had that sort of grudge against me was a man called Labro. He was overseer at Professor Bronzini’s digging at Volterra. He thinks I got him sacked.’

He told the Consul about Labro.

‘And you met him again, in Florence?’

‘On my way home on Friday night. He said he had something he wanted to tell me. I think it was just an excuse to cadge money.’

‘Would he have known the number of your car?’

‘He didn’t see it when I was out at the digging, if that’s what you mean. I’d left it down the track. He could have found it out, I suppose.’

‘How?’

‘I’m in the telephone book. It’s an open garage. He’d only have to come and look.’

‘I suppose so,’ said Sir Gerald. The idea sounded wholly improbable to him. He said, ‘How far have they questioned you yet?’

‘I’ve hardly been asked anything. Just general questions. Was I out that night? Where did I go? That sort of thing. They wanted me to make a statement, but I refused. They didn’t like that. I understand that the real questioning starts tomorrow, when the man from the Procuratore’s office gets his teeth into me.’

‘Don’t say anything unless your lawyer’s there. I’ll see about one right away.’

‘No need,’ said Broke. ‘Professor Bronzini has got me his own lawyer. Avvocato Toscafundi. He’s said to be hot stuff.’

2

 

The Triple Alliance

 

Sostituto-Procuratore Antonio Risso was thirty years old, baby-faced and brown haired. He affected tinted glasses, modelled himself on Henry Fonda, and was nakedly ambitious.

At ten o’clock on the Monday morning he called by arrangement on Benzoni who was the Procuratore della Republica and his departmental chief. Benzoni said, ‘I understand that you wish to take on the case of the Englishman, Broke. By strict rotation it would have been the turn of Cavalliero, and after him, Mazzo. Is there any good reason why I should disturb the roster?’

‘Two good reasons,’ said Risso. ‘First, from what I have read in the Police report, much in this case will depend on scientific evidence, and I have, as you know, scientific training. Secondly, the accused is an Englishman, and I speak much better English than either Cavalliero or Mazzo.’

‘And thirdly,’ said Benzoni, ‘you are a candidate in the forthcoming municipal elections, are you not? And a success in the Courts, in a case involving a foreigner as the accused, and an honest old Italian citizen as the victim, should redound to your credit and secure you a substantial number of votes.’

‘The thought had not even crossed my mind,’ said Risso. He managed to look so genuinely pained that Benzoni wondered for a moment if he had misjudged him. He said, ‘Very well. Let us accept the first two reasons as valid. But you must not prejudge the case.’

‘Of course not.’

‘And I should like to be kept regularly informed of its progress.’

‘The usual reports–’

‘The routine reports will not be adequate. This is not a routine case.’

Risso said, cautiously, ‘I have done no more than read the preliminary report, but it appears to be a normal case of hit and run.’

‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ said Benzoni. ‘I have an instinct in these matters, and I do not think that this is an ordinary case. You will exercise the greatest possible care.’

 

Elizabeth, arriving at Commander Comber’s flat, found Tina already there.

‘Come in,’ said the Commander. His beard was jutting out at an aggressive angle and the light of battle was in his eye. ‘We’re glad to see you. I take it you’ve come to talk about Broke.’

‘I certainly have. And to help if I can.’

‘That makes it a triple alliance. And it seems to me that if the forces of truth and light are going to prevail they’ll need all the allies they can enlist. I’ve been getting some extraordinary stuff from Tina here. She seems to think that the villain of the whole piece is a man called Dindoni.’

‘Dindo is a rat. A cockroach. A crawling snake. A creeping beetle,’ said Tina.

‘A one-man zoo,’ said the Commander. ‘I think I’d better do the explaining. You do get so upset, Tina.’

‘Have I not reason to be upset with Signor Roberto in prison; unjustly, and as the result of lies told by evil people.’

‘There’s every reason to be upset, but no reason to lose our heads. Now, what Tina tells me is this. Milo made
two
attempts to see Broke. The first meeting was at their house, but it was abandoned because Milo got the idea that Dindoni was listening in on them.’

‘Explain about Dindoni.’

The Commander explained about Dindoni.

‘Then Milo had a second shot. This had to be arranged rather elaborately. He wouldn’t go to Broke’s house because he had got it into his head that he was being followed.’

Elizabeth said sharply, ‘Was this true?’

‘Alas,’ said Tina, ‘we disbelieved him. We said that it was the imagining of an old man. Had we but listened to him.’ She dissolved into a flood of tears. She was a girl who cried easily, but without upsetting herself. In a few minutes she stopped crying, and said, quite cheerfully, ‘This is no time for tears. We must find the men who killed my father, and see that they are punished.’

‘What do we know about these men?’

‘All her father would say was that there were two of them. They were strangers to Florence, coming he thought, from the south. And he once saw one of them talking to Dindoni.’

‘They’re going to be a bit difficult to trace, aren’t they?’

‘If it’s the only line we’ve got, we must hunt it for what it’s worth.’

‘It isn’t the only line,’ said Elizabeth. ‘My father saw Broke this morning. He mentioned a man called Labro. An overseer at the Bronzini farm. There was some trouble when Broke went out there, and Labro got sacked. He seemed to think Broke was responsible and that he ought to do something about it. They happened to run into each other – this was actually on the Friday night when the accident happened.’

The Commander wrote down ‘Labro’ on the piece of paper in front of him and drew a circle round it.

Elizabeth said to Tina, ‘Have you got any idea
why
your father was so keen to see Broke. That might give us a line.’

‘He would not tell us. But it was to do with his work. That I am sure of.’

‘What work?’

‘Why, for Professor Bronzini. He had done much work for him. Some new carving, and some repairs.’

The Commander was still doodling on the paper. He now drew a circle round the name Bruno Bronzini and joined it by a line to Milo. Then he joined the circle round Labro to Bruno Bronzini. The pattern seemed to interest him.

‘And it was this work that was worrying him?’

‘I think so. Yes. But he was very secretive about his affairs. Particularly towards the end.’

‘Look here,’ said the Commander. He pointed to his diagram. What had emerged was a sort of star. The five points of the star were ‘Labro’, ‘Milo’, ‘First Unknown’, ‘Second Unknown’ and ‘Harfield Moss’. The centre of the star, connected by a line to each of the points, was Professor Bruno Bronzini.

‘What’s it all about?’ said Elizabeth. ‘And how does Harfield Moss come into it? All I know about him is that he’s mad about Etruscan relics.’

‘So is the Professor.’

‘I still don’t see it.’

‘I wouldn’t pretend,’ said the Commander, ‘that I’m crystal clear about it myself. But a sort of pattern seems to be emerging, and the significant thing about it is that every lead comes back to Professor Bronzini. So let’s suppose, just for a moment, that he
is
the key to the whole thing. Suppose he has made a big discovery at that digging of his. Something really sensational. That would account for Harfield Moss being in Florence, wouldn’t it?’

‘All right,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Things like that do happen. But what’s the connection with Robert?’

‘Step at a time. The Professor is in something of a fix. If he announces his find honestly, none of it will be allowed outside Italy. He’ll get something, but only a tenth of what he’d collect if he could sell it to private collectors in Europe and America.’

‘All right – but–’

‘Wait. Milo Zecchi knows about this. The Professor has employed him to restore some of the treasures. Milo is a sick man. The thing is on his conscience. He’s aching to confide in someone. Dindoni, who is spying on him, reports all this to the Professor, who has him watched. The watchers are your two unknown men. Then suddenly the situation becomes dangerous. Why?’ The Commander lifted his pencil and jabbed it down with dramatic suddenness on the name ‘Labro’. ‘Because Broke pays a visit to the digging. That would not, in itself, have presented any danger. Any evidence at the digging would be carefully concealed.
But
he becomes involved with Labro. Labro is dismissed. He too becomes a possible source of danger. He drinks too much. He is a babbler.
And he is observed making contact with Broke.

The Commander paused, his pencil poised over the characters he had assembled. Anyone who had watched him at work, earlier that morning, would have noted a curious similarity. On both occasions he had collected a number of arbitrary symbols on paper. On both occasions he seemed to be striving to arrange them in a related order and thread them on a chain of causation.


If
we are right,’ he said, ‘it is clear that at this point it was Broke who became the focus of danger. He was the expert. Give him a clue, a hint, and he might unravel the whole conspiracy. If Milo was allowed to have a heart-to-heart talk with him, the fat
would
be in the fire and no mistake. So, at one neat stroke, both dangers are removed. Milo is killed. False testimony throws the blame on Broke. And there is the man who is responsible. Professor Bronzini. The advocate of the Etruscan way of life. And by God, it’s just the sort of plot that would have appealed to an Etruscan.’

He placed the pencil gently down on top of the paper. It was the gesture of a conductor replacing his baton after interpreting a tricky passage.

Tina clapped her hands together. The Commander had spoken in English and she had only a shadowy idea of what he was talking about, but one thing was clear to her. The blame was being lifted from Signor Roberto and placed on the shoulders of the Professor.


Si, si,
’ she said. ‘It is that vile Professor who killed him. He shall be punished.’

‘It’s ingenious,’ said Elizabeth. ‘But how on earth are we going to prove it?’

‘I will ask Mercurio,’ said Tina. ‘The old man is infatuated with him. If he has secrets, Mercurio can wheedle them from him.’

‘Even if he is in the Professor’s confidence,’ said the Commander, ‘which I doubt, how can you be sure that Mercurio will confide in you?’

Tina held out her right hand, bending thumb and forefinger and crooking the three middle fingers. ‘Mercurio is like that to me,’ she said. ‘He is a little dog. If I whistle, he will come running.’

‘We wouldn’t want you to go getting into trouble.’

‘Trouble,’ said Tina. ‘The only person who will get into trouble will be Mercurio.’ She opened her mouth, showed her sharp little teeth, and clicked it shut.

Elizabeth said, ‘Poor Mercurio.’

After Tina had left, Elizabeth said, ‘Was that an act, put on to cheer the child up? Or were you serious?’

‘I’m completely serious,’ said the Commander. ‘I believe that Broke’s been made the victim of an elaborate frame-up. I think, to employ a well-known metaphor, that all we can see at the moment is the tip of the iceberg, and that there is depth beyond depth below it. Whether we shall be able to plumb it, is, of course, another question. But if you and Tina will help me I’m going to have a damned good try.’

‘Of course I’ll help. But–’

‘This is no time for ifs and buts,’ said the Commander. ‘We’ve burnt our boats. Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, with all the speed ye may. I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play. In yon strait path a thousand may well be stopped by three. Now who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?’

‘If you put it like that,’ said Elizabeth, quite carried away by the Commander’s enthusiasm, ‘the answer is, of course, we will. But there’s something you’d better know first. When Robert was having lunch with us the other day he had a sort of – I don’t know the name for it – a temporary black-out. He wasn’t unconscious, but he wasn’t with it either. Suppose Milo was delayed, and was hurrying up the Via Canina to meet him. I know the place. It’s badly lit, and there’s hardly any pavement. Isn’t it possible that Robert
did
hit him and didn’t notice anything because he was having one of these attacks. It’s possible, isn’t it?’

‘It’s possible,’ said the Commander, ‘but it isn’t true. I’m prepared to wager any sum you like to name that there’s more to it than that. I can’t give you any logical reasons for it. Call it instinct, if you like.’

Those interested in coincidences should note that at the precise moment he said this,
Procuratore della Republica
Benzoni was saying the same thing, in almost the same words, to Antonio Risso.

3

 

Interrogation

 

‘Then the last time you had your car out prior to the Friday night was on the afternoon of Wednesday?’

‘Yes.’

‘I believe you went out to lunch with your Consul on the Thursday. Did you not take the car out then?’

‘No. I walked there. And I was given a lift back.’

‘Who by?’

‘By the Consul’s daughter, Miss Weighill.’

‘It’s not far from your flat to the Consul’s house?’

‘No. It’s quite a short distance.’

‘You walked there. Why did you not walk back again?’

‘I wasn’t feeling very well.’

‘And that was why you were taken home by car?’

‘Yes.’

‘I see.’ Antonio Risso considered the matter, playing with the silver pencil in his hand, holding it up to catch the light, twirling it between his strong brown fingers. ‘What exactly was wrong with you?’

Avvocato Toscafundi, who had so far kept silent, stirred in his seat and said, ‘Surely this line of questioning is irregular. It can have no bearing on the matter being investigated.’

‘If the accused refuses to answer, his refusal will be noted. The information can probably be obtained elsewhere.’

‘I’ve no objection to telling you,’ said Broke crossly. ‘I felt faint. That’s all.’

‘And was this faintness something that had happened before? Or on this one occasion only?’

‘It had happened before.’

Risso paused, to make sure that the shorthand writer was keeping up, and then said, ‘Let us revert to the Wednesday afternoon. Where did you go?’

‘To Volterra. To a farm between Volterra and Montescudaio.’

‘That would be one of Professor Bronzini’s farms?’

‘Yes.’

‘And you went at his invitation?’

‘Certainly.’

‘Was it dark when you got back to Florence?’

‘No. Getting towards dusk, but not dark.’

‘When you return your car to the garage, do you normally drive it in forwards, or do you back it in?’

‘I make a practice of backing it in.’

‘And that was what you did on this occasion?’

‘Certainly.’

‘You will appreciate why I ask the question, Mr Broke. If you had driven the car in forwards in the dusk, it is just possible that you might have broken the fog-lamp without noticing it.’

‘Possible, but most unlikely.’

‘I agree. But since you backed the car in, the lamp could not have become damaged then.’

‘No.’

‘Then when did it become broken, do you think?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘Did you look at it on the Thursday.’

‘I didn’t actually look at it.’

‘But since it stands in an open garage, between your house and the house of Signora Colli, it is possible that one of you may have seen it?’

‘I didn’t. She may have done.’

‘Oh, she did, Mr Broke. When she took her dog out for a walk at about six o’clock on Friday evening.’

He paused invitingly, but Broke said nothing.

‘She has often remarked in what good condition you keep your car. Had the lamp been broken – not just cracked, but as badly dented and broken as it is – she says she would almost certainly have noticed it.’

‘Well that settles it.’

Risso looked a little baffled, and said, ‘Settles what, Mr Broke?’

‘The lamp must have been broken after six o’clock. The Colli children are always playing about in the road. I’ve complained to their mother before about it, but of course she can’t keep them in all the time.’

‘On Friday evening the Colli children were at the cinema.’

‘I didn’t say it
was
them. A lot of children play around there.’

Risso said, ‘It is odd, though, that none of your neighbours seem to have seen or heard anything of the sort that evening. May I turn to another point? You say that you went out in your car that evening to meet someone. But they did not arrive. So, after waiting for a little, you turned round and drove home.’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you prepared to tell us who it was you were going to meet?’

Broke said slowly, ‘I can’t see that it’s got anything to do with it really.’

‘Then you withhold the information?’

Broke thought about it. Then he said, ‘No. If you put it like that I don’t actually want to withhold it. I think it’s irrelevant that’s all.’

‘It is for us to judge the relevance of any information, Mr Broke.’

Avvocato Toscafundi said, ‘I think the Sostituto-Procuratore is within his rights in pressing the question.’

‘All right,’ said Broke. ‘It was Milo Zecchi I was going to meet.’

If he had expected some reaction, he was disappointed, Risso said, ‘Milo Zecchi. Yes.’ It might almost have seemed that the information had come as no surprise to him.

BOOK: The Etruscan Net
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