One morning, a fine May morning in Rome, when the sun was beaming through the clouds of carbon monoxide and dust and giving a soft, fresh feel to the day, Flavia di Stefano sat immobile in a vast traffic jam that began in the Piazza del Popolo and ended somewhere near the Piazza Venezia. Many people, at least those with a different personality from her own, would have been unperturbed by this common occurrence, and would instead have contemplated their surroundings with something approaching patient smugness. Not many, after all, can call on a Mercedes, complete with chauffeur and obligatory tinted windows, to ferry them around town at the taxpayers' expense. Fewer still at such a young age are the head (if only the acting head) of one of the more reputable departments in the Italian police force, complete with its own budget, personnel, and expense accounts.
And virtually none of the small number of departmental potentates use their splendid forms of transport to go to unspecified meetings, called late the previous evening, at the Palazzo Chigi, the official residence of the Italian prime minister.
That, of course, was the problem, and the reason behind Flavia's insensitivity to the early morning sunshine, and her disdain for all living things. For a start, her collar itched monstrously, and was a permanent, nagging reminder of her own inexperience and desire to create the right impression. Instead of sitting quietly that morning eating toast and drinking coffee, she had run around showering, choosing clothes, and worst of all, applying copious amounts of makeup. Then having a fit of defiance and taking it all off again, then weakening with nerves and putting it all back on. Worse still, she stood peering out of the window into the little piazza below, anxiously waiting for the car to arrive, checking and rechecking the contents of her handbag. She had nightmare visions of grabbing her coat and running through the streets of Rome to get there. Breaking a heel on a cobblestone. Arriving out of breath, her hair in a mess. Creating entirely the wrong impression. Career destroyed, over in a moment, just because some damn fool driver didn't turn up. And what was more, she felt ill; stomach in a turmoil, the rest of her queasy. Bug. Flu, probably. Nervousness. Something like that. It was going to be one of those days. She knew it.
"Flavia. Do stop jiggling about like that. You're making me nervous." Jonathan Argyll, her husband of four weeks' standing, and boyfriend-cum-flatmate of near ten years, sat at the kitchen table trying to read the newspaper. "It's only the prime minister, you know."
Flavia turned around to scowl at him.
"I'm not being facetious," he went on calmly as he reached for the marmalade before she could tell him what she thought of his sense of whimsy. "You know as well as I do that bad news is always handed out by underlings. Besides, you haven't done anything wrong recently, have you? Not misplaced a Raphael, dropped a Michelangelo, shot a senator, or anything?"
"There you are, then. Nothing to worry about," he continued, getting up to give her a quick pat to indicate that he sympathized. "Even less now that your car has arrived."
He pointed downward, waved cheerfully at the driver, whom he vaguely recognized, and even more cheerfully at Flavia, as she rushed for her bag and coat.
"Calm. Remember?" he said as she opened the door.
Calm, she repeated to herself thirty minutes later as she looked at her watch one more time. Stuck in a traffic jam, half a mile to go, five minutes late. At least it cut the unaccustomed car sickness. Calm, she thought.
It was Bottando's fault, really, she reflected. Her erstwhile boss, now gone on to greater things, was one of those who liked formulating universal laws about life, which he delivered as aphorisms that came back to haunt you at inappropriate moments.
"Politicians," he said once over a glass of brandy following a long lunch. "Politicians can ruin your day. Ministers, on the other hand, can ruin your week."
"And prime ministers?" Flavia had asked.
"Prime ministers? Oh, they can ruin your life."
His little bon mot, for some reason, didn't seem quite so urbane at the moment. She considered leaning forward to see if the driver could go any faster, but abandoned the idea. Another one of Bottando's rules. Never let anyone see you are nervous -- especially not drivers, who are notoriously the biggest gossips on the planet. So, like a condemned man who finally realizes his fate is inevitable, she gave a big sigh, leaned back, and gave up fretting. Immediately, the lights changed, the cars began moving, and the palazzo came into sight. She was waved through the vast wooden gates into the courtyard with virtually no delay, and within minutes was being ushered into an anteroom to an anteroom to the office where Antonio Sabauda, prime minister now for a whole nine months, held his audiences. Fourteen minutes late.
Her guardian angel was on duty, working hard on her behalf. Sabauda was later still, and over the next forty minutes she allowed herself to work up a fine head of steam about the lack of consideration shown by unpunctual people. In fact, by the time the door was finally opened and she was shown in, the nervousness was gone, the deference dissipated, the stomach quiescent, and her character quite restored to its normal state.
So she marched into the surprisingly dingy office thinking only how stupid she had been to put on quite so much lipstick and wishing she hadn't bothered, shook hands with the prime minister in a uninterested fashion, and sat down on a chair before she was asked. What did she care? She hadn't voted for him.
He scored early points by referring neither to her age, nor to the fact that she was a woman, and pushed his rating even higher by not indulging in any small talk. Then he spoiled it all by expressing surprise that Bottando himself had not come. Flavia reminded him that she, not General Bottando, was now running the art theft squad on a day-to-day basis.
"But he is still the head of it, is he not?"
"Nominally. But he takes no active role in our operations anymore. He is running this European venture, and that uses up all his time."
"And more of his patience," the prime minister added for her with a faint smile. "I see. And I am sure we are in safe hands with you, signora. I do hope so anyway. I'm afraid there is something of a crisis on hand. I would tell you about it myself, but I know few of the details. Dottore Macchioli knows those, and he has just arrived. This, I'm afraid, is why you have been kept waiting for so long."
Of course, Flavia thought. All is now clear. Alessandro Macchioli was one of those endearingly lovable characters who sows disaster everywhere he goes. Never on time for anything, however much he tried, always colliding with all manner of inanimate objects that leapt out at him as he passed, he was the very model of the unworldly scholar. And as a scholar he was very fine indeed, so Jonathan told her, as he knew more about this sort of thing than she did. But as the director of the National Museum, he was, in Bottando's opinion, one of the wonders of the world. His elevation had come on the rebound; his predecessor had been go-getting, dynamic, determined to drag the musty museum into modernity, and was shortly to be let out of jail. The embarrassment had been considerable, and Macchioli -- who could not only resist temptation but probably wouldn't even notice he was being tempted -- had seemed the obvious successor, in the circumstances. A safe pair of hands; back to the traditional values of connoisseurship, erudition, and old-time curating. A universally beloved figure, in fact, but quite incapable of defending his patch against the incursions of bureaucrats who wished to cut his funds, to ooze up to potential benefactors, or to manage his disorganized museum.
And deeply unhappy, Flavia judged from the nervous way he came in, thrusting his bicycle clips into the bulging pocket of his shabby suit. It was all most intriguing.
Macchioli sat down, fiddled with his hands, and looked uncomfortable as the introductions were made.
"Perhaps we might begin?" the prime minister prompted.
"Ah, yes," Macchioli said absently.
"You have a problem that you wish to tell the signora about?"
Persuading himself to divulge it was evidently a titanic struggle, almost as though he knew that, once he had spoken, all sorts of unpleasant consequences might begin to swirl around him. He rocked to and fro, hunched his shoulders, rubbed his nose, and then, in a sudden burst of decision, spoke: "I've lost a picture. The museum has. It was stolen."
Flavia was puzzled. She could see why he was upset. Awkward business, losing pictures. That was not the problem, however. They went missing all the time; so often, in fact, that the routine for what to do was well established. You phoned the police. They went around, did their stuff and then you forgot all about it, on the reasonable grounds that the picture was unlikely ever to be seen again. All perfectly normal. It was hearing about it in the prime minister's office that was not entirely orthodox.
"I see," she said helpfully, but poor old Macchioli did not take it as a prompt to continue; instead he lapsed into another agonized silence.
"For the last five years, you see, we have been planning an exhibition." He restarted, evidently deciding that a sidelong approach might be best. "To celebrate Italy's presidency of the European Community, which begins in fifteen days' time. Drawing on all aspects of European art, but I am afraid that some people" -- and here he gave a surreptitious glance in the direction of the desk at which the prime minister was sitting -- "some people have sought to turn it into a nationalistic demonstration."
"Just a small reminder of our contribution in matters of culture," the prime minister purred.
"This has made borrowing the works a little more difficult than it might have been," Macchioli continued. "Not that it is relevant to the disaster that has befallen us..."
The prime minister, showing more patience than his reputation would have suggested possible, sighed in the background. It was enough to bring Macchioli's errant mind back to the immediate issue.
"We did, however, finally arrange to borrow nearly all the paintings we wanted. Most from Italian institutions, naturally, but a good proportion from foreign museums and owners. Many of the pictures have never been seen in this country before."
"But I know about all this," said Flavia with more impatience than the prime minister was showing. "We've been involved in the planning for years. Members of my department escorted the first few paintings from the airport to the museum last week."
"Yes. And a very fine job you did, too. No mistake about that. Very fine. Unfortunately..."
"The one you've had stolen. It was one of those?"
"Yesterday. At lunchtime."
"Lunchtime? Then why are you only telling me about it now?"
"It was very awkward, you see. I wasn't at all sure what to do about it..."
"Perhaps I might fill the signora in?" The prime minister interrupted, glancing at his watch and realizing that, unless something was done soon, this meeting might last for the rest of the day and Macchioli still wouldn't have explained anything. "Please correct me if I get the details wrong. I understand the picture was stolen at around half past one yesterday. A hooded man reversed a truck into the storage area, held up the people working there, forced them to load the painting, complete with its frame, into the back of the truck, and drove off. Is that correct?"
Flavia, fidgeting around in her seat, opened her mouth to make the obvious protests about wasted time, trails going cold, and so on.
"Your department, signora, was not called because the thief left behind a message saying that the police should not be contacted."
"A ransom demand, is that it?"
A shrug. "Not exactly. Just that we'd be hearing more in due course. I suppose that means money."
"Maybe so. What, exactly, is the picture?"
"It's a Claude Lorrain. Landscape with Cephalus and Procris," Macchioli said reluctantly.
Flavia paused. "Oh, not that one, surely? Not the one where the government intervened officially to guarantee it?"
He nodded. You could see why he was upset, she thought. Not that it was such a great picture, although she always found Claude quite toothsome. Not a Raphael, or anything like that. But it had such a dodgy past. Its reputation as one of the most stolen pictures in the world ensured it a status beyond its simple quality. Argyll, no doubt, would remember the details better than she could, but she could recall the highlights. Painted in the 1630s for an Italian cardinal. Pinched by the duke of Modena when he found it in a wagon after a battle. Pinched again by a French general a few years later. Looted and sold during the French Revolution, pinched again by Napoleon when he came across it in Holland. Stolen by thieves in the 1930s, by the Germans in the 1940s, and by two more thieves in the 1950s and 1960s. Whereupon the exasperated owner sold it to the Louvre, in the hope that they would manage to hang on to it. Which they had. Until, it seemed, it had arrived in Italy.
"Oh, dear," she said.
"You see our problem," the prime minister continued. "It is exceptionally unpleasant for me, as I gave a personal guarantee about its safety. Quite apart from that, this exhibition is to be one of the cultural high points of our presidency. It would be very bad indeed if it was wrecked, and it would be wrecked if this news gets out. It is quite possible that other lenders would pull out, and even if they didn't our reputation would be damaged badly. You can imagine what would be said. We would look quite ridiculous."
Flavia nodded. "So? When you get the ransom demand you pay up."
"The only problem is that it is illegal. If we arrest people for paying ransoms to rescue their wives and children, we can hardly pay up for a mere painting."
A silence fell on the room, and it seemed as though Flavia was expected to say something useful.
"You mean you want me to find the painting?"
"I would ordinarily be deeply grateful, but in this case, no. How many people would you use for such an inquiry?"
Flavia thought for a moment. "Everyone we had, if you wanted a quick result. Not that I can guarantee one."
"And could you at least guarantee to keep it out of the press?"
"For about six hours, yes."
"Precisely. Secrecy in this matter is absolutely vital. Even if you were successful and recovered the painting swiftly, the damage would still be done."
"In which case, I confess to being defeated. You won't pay a ransom and won't look for the painting. What, exactly, do you want done?"
"We cannot pay a ransom. The government cannot authorize such a thing. Taxpayers' money cannot be used. Nor can any government employee be involved in its payment. Do I make myself clear?"
He did. But Flavia had not spent years watching Bottando take avoiding action without learning a thing or two.
"I'm afraid I'm not with you at all. Sorry," she said blandly.
"You will use your best abilities to recover this painting without any publicity. But I must make it absolutely clear that I cannot and will not condone the payment of a ransom from public funds."
"Should these criminals be paid off independently from a private source, a man willing to break the law for what he considers erroneously the public good, then that, of course, I cannot prevent, much though I might regret it."
"You will keep me informed every day about your investigation, and will receive instructions as you proceed. Might I also say that the need for secrecy is absolute."
"You are rather tying my hands here."
"I'm sure you will manage."
"And if I come across any other way of recovering this picture?"
"You will restrain yourself. I want no risk of all of this coming into the open." He stood up. "I think that is all for the time being. Let me know of your progress every day, if you please."
Two minutes later, both Flavia and Macchioli were in an anteroom once more, she a little perplexed about the whole business, the museum director seemingly lost in despondency.
"Right, then," she said after a while. "I think you need to tell me a little more about what on earth has been going on here."
"Robbery? Armed man? Remember?"
"Yes, yes. What do you want to know?"
"How about how to contact this person? If I am to hand over money to them in some way, I ought to know how to set about it."
Macchioli looked blank. "What do you mean, hand over money? I thought you had just been told that you were to do no such thing?"
She sighed. The trouble with Macchioli was that there was no disingenuousness about him at all. He really did think that they had just sat through a meeting and been given instructions that no money was to be paid. That, of course, might well turn into a major problem.
"Doesn't matter. Forget it," she said. "This message, it gave no means of contact?"
"Can I see it, please?"
"It's in my office."
It was like talking to a particularly stupid child. "Why don't we go to your office, then?"
"There," he said, forty minutes later, after a silent voyage through the streets of Rome. "It's not very informative."
Flavia took the piece of paper -- no point in worrying about fingerprints or anything like that now -- and looked. True enough. She could hardly fault the analysis. Six words only. She even admired the economy of expression.
She leaned back in her seat and thought. Did it tell her anything? "You'll be hearing from me." Done on a computer printer, but who didn't have access to one these days? The paper was standard-issue computer paper, of which there were several billion sheets consumed every day. No, it told her nothing; or, at least, nothing that the author didn't want her to know.
"The robbery itself," she said, turning her attention back to Macchioli.
He shook his head. "Very little to say you haven't already been told. A small truck; the sort that traders use to deliver fruit and vegetables. A man dressed up as Leonardo da Vinci..."
"What?" she asked incredulously. He had said it as though people dressed as Renaissance painters or baroque popes were to be seen pottering about the museum every day.
"One of those masks you buy in party shops. You know. And a sort of cape. And the gun, of course. Do you want to see that?"
She looked at him wearily. Mere expressions of incredulity seemed inadequate somehow. "The gun?"
"He dropped it when he drove off. Threw it, actually. At the men who helped him load the picture. This was after he handed out chocolates."
"Chocolates?" she said weakly.
"Little boxes of chocolates. Belgian ones, I believe. You know, the ones that you buy in specialty shops. With a ribbon on the top."
"Of course. Where are they?"
"The guards ate them."
"I see. Blood sugar levels low because of the shock, no doubt. Apart from that, no violence of any sort?"
"I'd like to talk to these people in the storeroom."
"You'll have to."
"What do you mean?"
"Someone has to tell them to keep quiet about this."
"You haven't done that?"
"Of course. But nobody ever listens to me."
Flavia sighed. "Very well, then. Take me to them. Then you can show me the gun."
She decided on the brutal approach. Not simply because it was one of those days, and she wasn't feeling in the mood for subtleties, but because she knew that being young and a woman meant that it was sometimes difficult to persuade people -- especially the sort of people who unload paintings -- to take her seriously.
"Right," she said, when the two men had come in and sat down. "I will say this once and once only. I am the head of the art theft squad, investigating the theft of this picture. You two are prime suspects. Got that?"
They didn't answer but, judging by the way they turned a little pale, she assumed they had.
"I want it back fast, and more important people than myself want there to be no publicity. If there is any, if anyone hears about what has happened here, and I trace it back to you two, I will personally ensure (a) that you go to jail for aiding and abetting a crime, (b) that you stay in jail for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, (c) I will have you fired from this job, and (d) I will ensure that neither of you ever gets a job again. Is that understood?"
"In order to avoid this regrettable fate, all you have to do is keep your mouths shut. There was no theft, you know of no theft, nothing untoward happened yesterday. You may find that difficult, but you will find the self-discipline rewarding. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"
She was rather proud of the speech, delivered with all the cold conviction of a true apparatchik, able to call on untold occult powers to visit terrible consequences on the innocent. Anyone would have seen it was all nonsense after a moment's thought, and that there was nothing she could do to them at all, but the two men seemed too dull to notice. She only hoped they were not so dull that they failed to grasp what she wanted of them.
That would become clear in the next few days; what was immediately apparent, alas, was that they were certainly too dim-witted to be much use as witnesses. Their description of the robbery was scarcely more detailed than the brief summary that Macchioli and Sabauda had already given her. The only facts they added was that the van was large enough to get a Claude in, was white, and wasn't a Fiat. The man involved was of average height and might (or might not) have had a Roman accent. She dismissed them after twenty minutes with another dire warning, then was taken to see the gun.
Macchioli was keeping it in his safe. In a plastic bag. He was inordinately proud of himself about the plastic bag.
"There," he said, putting it gingerly on his desk. "We were lucky it didn't go off when it hit the ground."
Flavia felt like weeping. Some days were just so abominable she didn't know how she stood it. She took out her handkerchief, picked up the gun, looked at it for a few moments, then pointed it at her head.
"Signora! Be careful!" shouted Macchioli in alarm.
She looked at him sadly, closed her eyes, and to the older man's horror, slowly pulled the trigger.
The sound of what was later identified by analysts -- or rather by a secretary in payroll, who was an opera enthusiast -- as a jaunty version of Verdi's "Teco io sto. Gran Dio!" from Act Two of Un Ballo in Maschera, rendered on a little widget buried deep inside the gun's handle, drifted slowly across the room.
Flavia opened her eyes, shrugged, and tossed the gun onto the desk.
"If we manage to find a shop that has recently sold a Leonardo da Vinci mask and a plastic singing gun to a man carrying chocolates, we might have a lead," she said, as she put the gun back into the bag. "I'll let you know."
Five minutes later she was slumped in the back of the car, muttering darkly to herself. Then she reached a decision. Whatever injunctions other people needed to obey on keeping their mouths shut, she needed to ventilate. She gave her driver directions to head for the EUR.
Copyright © 2000 by Iain Pears