I can't say enough times how much I appreciate the reviews and feedback. Writing this is fun, but living through it as an interactive process, even more so.
By way of a status update, the plot summary for the remainder of this, by now 101% complete (not that it stops me from micro-tweaking), now stands at 12K words with 10 more chapters remaining. I give up on guessing its total length other than saying that it will be somewhere in the 45-55K range, but I am sticking to the 18-chapter structure, even though I am pretty sure that #13 will be a 7000-word monster; and I've now added chapter headings to reflect the overall plot. I'll try to post a chapter daily (except for #13, again), or once every couple of days – I almost wish I could slow myself down ;)
She knows that logic is powerless here; she could argue that it is premature to blame himself unless they are absolutely certain of the cause of death; that even if Varese has not died from natural causes, it does not necessarily point to Chinese assassins; that even if there is a Chinese connection, the fact that the mention of his name has been a death warrant likely means that the man was doomed already; that it seems far-fetched to say the least – but she knows that dissuading him will not make him feel any less responsible for a few words he has uttered on a deserted airstrip four thousand miles away.
She tries it still.
"Did Theo say how he died?"
"No." His voice is hollow, years older than yesterday. "The way he talked about it, doesn't seem that anyone suspects." Talking as if all those worst-case scenario facts had been established already.
"If he was killed because you simply mentioned his name, then he had no chances anyway, then it could have been anyone or anything triggering it – "
"But it was me."
"You don't know that. Don't you believe in the presumption of innocence?"
"When there is any innocence to be presumed, yes."
She wants to slam into him and tackle him to the floor, and not in a sexy way. "You really enjoy taking the blame, don't you ? Just like your hero persona – "
"I can't..." the pain in his voice makes her flinch in sympathy. "I can't just switch it off like that. I am no longer Batman but I can't suddenly be OK with people dying because of me."
And we're back to square one, she thinks; but then she should have known what she was getting into and who she was getting into bed with. This is, after all, the man who stared death in the face to save a city that had demonised him, once its hero, but this ridiculous crazy attitude is one of the reasons she came back for him in a doomed city instead of leaving, after all. This is the ultimate fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread; he is certainly no angel but he sure is one big suicidal altruistic fool of a demon.
"You're going to the funeral, aren't you?"
"I'm going with you. No argument."
"There's a reason why you can't." He sounds so fucking satisfied saying it. "Remember, I told them that you were his son's fiancée and we were having an affair. We can't be seen together."
"I'm still going. I just won't go to the funeral itself."
"Is there anything that can stop you?" He sounds defeated; she did not expect him to give in so easily.
"You know the answer."
He just sighs. "Come on, let's get dressed. We need to go and warn Theo about all this."
"Non mi dire delle cazzate, Wainwright." Theo sounds positively severe, like a headmaster berating a misbehaving pupil, and has upgraded from his habitual non mi dire delle stronzate, as in don't bullshit me, to basically accusing Bruce of verbal idiocy. "You can't possibly blame yourself for this."
Across the table from him in his Wainwright Security office, Selina mouths a silent thank you.
"Sorry for the French, Céline," he gives her a quick look. The colloquial Italian designation of profanity unexpectedly makes her smile.
"No worries." She is proud of being able to reply to him in Italian, even if it is a simple thing. She is still miles away from being fully fluent, but her efforts are paying off. "Living with him," she nods at Bruce, "I really need to practice Italian swearwords."
"Does he always blame himself for everything?" She suspects that Theo knows the answer.
"You have no idea," she says in English, to best display the emphasis.
"The fact remains that Giacomo Varese has paid for our lucky escape with his life," Bruce cuts in, grimly. "You may disagree but I am positive about it. But whether or not I blame myself is irrelevant at the moment. The other fact is that we don't know if they're going to come looking for us," he points to himself and to her, "which means that they could also pose a danger to you." As an added source of self-torment, he told Selina on the way to the office that his villa had been registered in Theo's name for years since he bought it, at least until they found time to take care of transfer formalities a month ago, which meant that anyone who might want to track him to Lugano would probably pick up Theo on their radar screen, not to mention their business association posing the same risk.
"I can take care of myself," Theo cuts him off, and continues, ignoring his impatient look, "and my family. I'll send them to my in-laws' house in Lucerne tomorrow, I have a couple of former colleagues living there and the house itself is a hundred yards away from a police station. You worry about yourself," he finishes his stern declaration, "and about Céline."
Now is Bruce's turn to say the silent thank you. "I told her not to come, good luck dissuading her."
"At the very least," Theo is ostensibly talking to Bruce, but looking at her, "she shouldn't be seen anywhere near the ceremony."
Bruce reacts to this with a not-so-silent that's what I said.
"I agreed to that already," she jumps in.
"Good girl," Theo mutters and continues, now looking at Bruce: "Are you positive you don't want me to go along? If we need to start digging up dirt, as I suspect you want to, it could help if we – "
Apparently, they are destined to keep interrupting each other in this discussion, though little wonder considering its subject matter and their mutual concern.
"I forbid you to," Bruce states flatly. "I own the fucking company and I insist that you are needed here to take care of business. I am not going to be responsible for your children growing up orphans."
Theo looks like he might try arguing, but decides to drop it and change tack. "Do you need any extra surveillance installed in Carona?"
Selina puts on a sarcastic face. "What do you mean, extra? I don't think he has any."
"The fact that you didn't see it doesn't mean there isn't any," Bruce counters smugly. "And the fact that you've seen it doesn't mean that there isn't more to it than meets the eye."
"Don't tell me you saw me." It really shouldn't matter, but she can't help blushing at the thought that he actually watched her break into the villa a month ago.
"Not at the time," he concedes. "I admit I'd switched off the sensors, I need to recalibrate them because I was getting really tired after I kept getting the alarm triggered by, well, bats flying by." She has no intention of exposing him, but finds his imploring look directed at her after these words positively endearing. "But as soon as I looked at camera footage the following evening after we came back from the movies, I saw you right there," he concludes, quietly triumphant.
She is momentarily stumped. "But that's a regular – "
"That," he continues, all but grinning, "is an Axis Lightfinder camera in regular camera housing." She notices Theo nodding his understanding and, embarrassingly, smirking at her. "We make them under licence from the Swedes, but I decided not to advertise the fact that I have a camera with night vision capability to anyone who might want to come looking."
Theo takes pity on her and directs his next question at Bruce, who is still enjoying his minor victory. "What about files, papers," he looks at Selina, "jewels and so on? I know you have a safe there, but I'd still suggest you – "
"I'll bring all that to the vault here," Bruce finishes for him.
"And I don't have any jewellery besides these," Selina adds, touching the string at her neck. "And I'm going to wear them anyway." She probably should explain to Theo about the tracker, but figures that it can wait.
"I keep most of my stuff at the company vault as it is," Bruce continues. "I've made a habit of it years ago, after a madman burned down my house," he explains. "Miranda's father, actually," he adds for Selina's benefit.
"Figures," she scowls. Theo just looks from one to another, curiosity written on his face.
"Long story," Bruce mutters. "And the worst of it was, to add insult to injury everyone said I'd started the fire myself in a drunken stupor. Now you've told me you've been checking on that pulp mill already," he goes on, changing the subject. "Any leads?"
Theo shakes his head, looking less than pleased. "Chen and I have been able to pull up their company registration data and tax records but it all looks hopelessly clean. Even though I agree with you that a pulp mill in that area has to be an excuse for something. To make it worse, it is listed as a foreign investment and its immediate owners are a collection of Indonesian fronts, and it'll take time to work our way through that."
"Could you pull strings at the Interpol?" Bruce interjects hopefully.
"I've been trying to, already," Theo answers, "I've called the guy at the China NCB and he was willing to talk, considering those GPS-tracker police radios we supplied to them. But there isn't much to go on. He ran a firearms database search for me, no recent crimes involving AK47s in Qinghai or neighbouring regions. In principle he could get a blue notice issued, the info request, but to do that we need a suspect name, at the very least. I'll keep looking into the Indonesia connection, if we pull up something there the China NCB could help us with a query, maybe through the financial crime unit, to see if there is any evidence of Triad money laundering through those fronts. But it all takes time," Theo rubs his forehead in annoyance, "and I have to rely on favours. If I had a normal person at the Swiss NCB to deal with, it could all be done a lot faster, but the current head is the worst kind of coglione stickler for bureaucracy. Sorry Céline."
"Which kind is that?" she asks, waving away his apology.
"A coward," Theo replies. "Won't stray an inch from procedure for fear of his ass being kicked, because he knows he's too incompetent to be in his post in the first place."
They spend a few more minutes talking, mapping out their next steps, until Theo gets called away on an urgent business matter and bids her and Bruce a reluctant goodbye.
"I still say you're taking it too personally, Brandon, but I know you won't listen. I'd have probably felt the same way in your place. And I hope I don't need to tell you to watch out," is his final admonition. "We still don't know for sure who it was, or why they did it. It could be your Chinese friends, or it could just be the local Chinese mafia there, or even the Italian Mafia, or it could be family, some pissed-off relative settling scores. Or he could have died of a heart attack. You never know. Just keep playing clueless."
He shakes hands with them both before abandoning the business etiquette in favour of hugs, and sends them off.
Several hours later they are driving past the gently rolling Tuscan countryside, past the dark green candlesticks of the cypresses and the dots of scarlet poppies sprinkled amid grass whose fresh early-summer green has not yet been bleached to dull yellow by the July heat. Weren't they just here? Yesterday, a hundred years ago.
Instead of heading all the way back into Florence, they take the exit to Prato, the Tuscan textile capital, twelve or thirteen miles to the northeast. As she eventually sees, it has a lovely, compact medieval centre; but it takes a few minutes driving through dreary industrial suburbs to get there. It is not heavily industrial by northern European or even northern Italian standards, but is distinctly lacking in appeal, with rows of graffiti-covered corrugated iron fences screening off the long half-barrels of warehouses and the ugly, low square boxes of factories, with occasional glimpses of laundry on washing lines strung between windows. The factory workers in this area are mostly Chinese, Bruce tells her, and they are made to live in near-inhuman conditions by Triad enforcers; those who have to live inside the factory may be lucky by comparison to those who have to share a hundred-square-foot room with four others. To prove his point about the makeup of the population, the majority of shop sigs and even some street names, except in the very centre, are written in hanzi.
They find a welcome respite from this jarring scene in the stylishly monochromatic Wall Art Hotel just off the city centre near the train station, its Oriental undertones more evocative of Japanese minimalism than ornate Chinese opulence. Bruce immediately powers up his laptop to continue looking for possible connections, however implausible, between Tessuti Varese, the late Giacomo's company, and the Chinese mill, and she takes the Sesto into Florence to get herself a business suit, in case Bruce changes his mind about her attending the funeral or, more likely, in case any subsequent investigation they may end up doing should require business attire. Her Hong Kong wardrobe, while predominantly safely black, veers more to the smart casual than the formal end of the range. She is happy to find what she was looking for, an elegant dark grey pantsuit, before the shops close for the day and before she goes back to Prato for a quiet dinner in a simple local restaurant in the old centre.
The next day, when Bruce is away to attend the funeral, she switches on the TV and does her best to follow the Italian programs; with the exception of the occasional insightful documentary, these are known for their inane boredom and questionable taste, but her priority is getting a better hang of the language. Bruce may argue all he wants, but she has a sense that it may come in handy in the coming days.
He comes back mid-afternoon, looking understandably downbeat, additional reasons becoming apparent as he tells her about the ceremony. The family were all mostly there, but they were either too scared or too completely in the dark to say much. The apparent cause of Varese's death was said to have been a severe food allergy; while highly suspicious, it is nowhere near as conclusive as a bullet in the head, and apparently an autopsy was done in the Florentine hospital the ambulance had taken him to, San Giovanni di Dio, and no other irregularities found.
On the unexpectedly promising side, however, he tells her that he has an appointment for later that evening.
"Gianfranco wants to talk to me about installing additional security at the villa," he calls out to her, lounging on the bed, as he sits down to continue his online quest. "It's already festooned with sensors to the back teeth, but I don't blame him for wanting more."
"Who's Gianfranco?" she asks. Obviously a relative, but the name has not come up before.
"His son," Bruce replies. "He had three children, two elder daughters, both married and living in Milan, and this one. He's your fiancé, by the way," he finishes, a hint of irony in his voice.
She remembers the story he hastily conjured up in China, though he had never mentioned the name. "Did you tell him that?"
"No, I figured I'd go with Theo's advice and not put too much trust in anyone here. Besides," he shoots a quick glance at her, "I didn't want to give pretty boy any ideas."
"He's pretty, huh?" It is a good opportunity to tease him, but she can't quite muster the enthusiasm.
"You'll see for yourself," he replies. "I told him you'd be coming along as a colleague of mine. I figured I could do with a second pair of eyes, and there are worse places to go to than a house my company equipped with alarms."
She isn't going to be so unsubtle as to thank him for bringing her along, but sure as hell she isn't going to argue, either.
Pretty, she reflects, is in fact a perfect description of Gianfranco Varese. He looks to be in his early thirties, a couple of years older than her, and looking at his refined, almost delicate features and stylish appearance, she can't quite apply the handsome epithet to him – he is too refined for that – but pretty he definitely is. Of average height but good build, with a full head of dark brown hair that is more curly than wavy – a considerable asset as many Italians tend to baldness regardless of age – and limpid blue eyes, dressed in an expensively tailored suit, wearing a Rolex and shoes that look custom-made, he looks quite the playboy; not, perhaps, of the over-the-top and fiercely reckless Wayne brand, but of a subtler, mellower, softer persuasion, and way too fidgety for her taste.
They are talking in his late father's dimly-lit, wood-panelled, leather-upholstered, cluttered-looking study on the ground floor of the extensive villa, just over a mile northeast from Prato's centre in the hills rising toward the hamlet of Filettole; the ostensible reason is, as Bruce told her earlier, Gianfranco's desire to bolster the already considerable security, and it is apparently important enough for him to spare half an hour away from his father's wake in the sombre dining room next door. They look like some sort of uniformed secret society attired in designer charcoal grey tropical wool, between Gianfranco's Brioni and Bruce's Zegna and her Armani; no self-respecting Italian north of Rome would wear the disgrace of a black suit that is not actually a black tie dinner jacket, even to a funeral. She listens to them discussing camera specs and sensor trigger values and cost estimates and pretends to take notes; as a thief, she would be supremely interested in these but her interest now is more of a psychological than technical nature. And the thing that strikes her most is that Gianfranco does not look terribly bereaved.
Sure enough, he mentions the loss, but Gianfranco's main concern seems to be the family's dilemma of what to do with their stake in Tessuti Varese now that Varese senior is gone, considering, Selina reflects, that he seems to have been the only one emotionally invested in the company. His two married daughters, Gianfranco's sisters, have no interest in it and no desire to move from their comfortable Milanese homes for the drab reality of Prato, and Gianfranco himself apparently is not keen on running the company either. He talks about having always wanted to go to California to open a restaurant, about the opportunities it could open up for his aspiring-model girlfriend, currently away on a photo shoot in Bali and unable to come back for the funeral. Bruce seems to have picked up on it as well and casually casts oblique questions about the situation with the company, trying to gauge the extent of Gianfranco's indifference and see if he can perhaps pick up any hint of resentment.
It doesn't seem to be the case, except that Gianfranco seems highly sceptical of his late father's dogged resistance to handing the company over to professional management in favour of continuing as a hands-on manager himself and trying to keep Tessuti Varese a family business, a view that Bruce seems likewise unimpressed by. Apparently Giacomo had seen the Chinese partners as a way of keeping the status quo, as they were similarly uninterested in newfangled management tricks and public listings. If Gianfranco gives off any vibe talking about all this, it is not one of resentment but rather one of reserve, of being guarded and carefully weighing his words. After a few minutes it is apparent to both Bruce and Selina that they are not going to get any more useful information out of this encounter, and having exchanged a furtive look and promised to Gianfranco that they would get back to him with an estimate for the extra surveillance equipment, they take their leave and let Gianfranco rejoin the wake.
"I have to give it to Theo," Selina muses in the car on their way back to the hotel. "Don't know if he's met Gianfranco, but there may be truth in his hunch about family."
Bruce does not answer immediately. "I don't think he killed his father, if that's what you imply." He chews his lower lip for a second. "Or that he paid anyone else to do it. But he definitely knows more than he's letting on, and the trouble is, without him we're going to be poking around in the dark on this end once we've confirmed the most basic facts."
"Which basic facts do you mean?"
"The fact that Giacomo was poisoned. Men in their sixties don't suddenly develop food allergies, and in all the time we've been talking to Gianfranco, he never mentioned it once when talking about his father's death."
Hospitals are scarily easy to get into, she reflects; it is true that most people who end up in them are more concerned with their health than their security, but she does not envy those who may have problems with both. Basically, they just go in, tell the receptionist a ridiculously implausible story about Selina needing to retrieve a medical certificate she forgot to ask for earlier after an imaginary walk-in visit that she must present to her employer as an excuse for a missed day of work, give the names of a doctor and night nurse they've looked up online, and are allowed to go upstairs, where the nurse is supposed to be keeping the certificate for them – no ID checks, no calls to the nurse or the doctor, no way of telling that instead of going two floors up, they are indeed headed two floors down, into the mortuary. No cameras, either, thus giving Selina a free hand with picking the mortuary office lock.
Notwithstanding the advent of the electronic age, the principal autopsy report on Giacomo Varese is to be found on paper in the office and contains a detailed description of the symptoms and consequences of anaphylactic shock brought about by a severe peanut allergy. So detailed and seemingly exhaustive as to make the two of them wonder if it had been lifted out of a textbook, and make them spend an extra half hour, after photocopying the report, on cracking the computer password to see if they can find Varese's previous medical history through the link to the database of local health provider data that the hospital is able to access in case of emergencies such as the dying Varese's arrival.
Their effort is rewarded when they see the date of the most recent update on Varese's history as the day after his death, and reading through it, they see the same textbook-perfect allergy diagnosis. And looking at the signature, they see the same doctor's name as the one on the autopsy report.
"Do me a favour," Bruce mutters to her as he folds the autopsy report photocopy to put into his jacket pocket and she gets ready to power down the computer. "See if you can look up the contact details of this Michele Secchi guy. I think we'd better talk to him."
Michele Secchi is scared out of his wits, and trying in vain not to show it. He is sitting on the sofa in his well-appointed apartment, his equally scared girlfriend is whimpering in a corner, and Bruce and Selina are sitting on either side of him in case he tries to bolt again, as he did when they showed up, after they'd come in and admitted to him that their fake emergency story and his colleague's referral were just that, fake. Tying him up might be a more efficient option, but the danger then is that he'd either start screaming and need to be gagged, or lose his voice altogether.
After about five minutes of accusations, begging and dithering, Bruce asks the girlfriend if there is any grappa in the house – a plausible assumption in case of a doctor moonlighting at autopsies and, apparently, at falsifying records, as an emergency tranquiliser to counteract frayed nerves – and ten more minutes later, having drunk what seems half a bottle of the rocket-fuel stuff – Selina and Bruce both barely managed two sips – Secchi is finally ready to talk.
"Please, I beg you, don't mention my name anywhere, or they'll kill me."
"Who?" Selina asks; Bruce has wisely let her take the lead, considering that his voice seems to send Secchi into paroxysms of panic.
"The people who came here two days ago, after I'd done the autopsy on Varese's body. They – they threatened us with guns and locked Giovanna in the bedroom and made me go with them back to the hospital and burn the autopsy report I'd just written and rewrite it, and alter his medical records. Please, I can't let anyone find out. If the hospital finds out that I did this I'm fired, and if the Chinese find out that I told you I'm dead," he concludes, shaking.
"They were Chinese?" Selina prompts.
Secchi realises his slip, but is already so scared that it makes little difference.
"Yes," he moans. "You know Prato's full of them, and half of them are Chinese mafia. It's chased the Italian mobsters away from here. I never thought I'd end up in their way, it's this damned Varese man, why did he die in time for my shift?"
"What was in your original report?"
Secchi looks like he is about to start crying.
"We won't tell anyone, I swear. Not your name, not about the false report. We're going after them from a different direction," Bruce assures him in his softest and quietest voice, which, Selina thinks, is surprisingly soothing. "We just need to know, for ourselves."
Secchi looks up to him, and makes the leap of faith.
"Poison," he breathes.
The AXIS night vision outdoor camera is technically called AXIS Q-1602-E, but I figured it would be too boring a name. It does, however, use patented Lightfinder technology.
NCB stands for an Interpol National Central Bureau, its main coordination and liaison unit in any given country. Blue notices are Interpol information requests; the Interpol uses a colour-coded system for its various notices, warrants, and alerts.
What I write about the Chinese in Prato may sound rather xenophobic (I shouldn't be talking, I was not born here either), but it is true that Prato is the centre of the Tuscan textiles industry, that it is being taken over by Chinese businesses (and their rank-and-file workers, often illegal immigrants, live in appalling conditions), and that the Chinese mafia aka Triad has been replacing the Italian mafia around Florence and in Prato. As a side note, we were just having lunch yesterday with a colleague who was visiting the Rome office from Florence HQ and lives near Prato, and he was telling us that most of the street signs and shop signs around Prato are now in Chinese and that many of them live right in the factories (both of which, as you've seen, I've stuck into my narrative), and that Triad presence there is a real thing.