DAVID P. WAGNER


AUTHOR OF THE RICK MONTOYA ITALIAN MYSTERIES

Prologue


 
The body rolled off the planks and slipped into the water with barely a splash It sank a few inches, bobbed back to the surface, and was immediately embraced by the river's steady current. A man stood watching, his form casting barely a shadow in the weak light of the morning. He took in three short breaths, gaining his composure after the exertion of the struggle. The fishing pole lay where it had been placed, ready to be stowed in the boat that was tied a few feet away. He moved his eyes from the body, now almost invisible in the dark water, and surveyed the scene. Leave it as it is. He turned and walked away.

The small, wood dock jutted out at a point where the Mincio widened before turning into a virtual lake at Mantova. After passing the city it would squeeze back to normal size before emptying into the mighty Po for the final kilometers to the Adriatic Sea. Once the border between Venice and Milan, where the armies of those two powerful city states clashed in mortal combat, the river ran through land now known more for food than violent history. This was the eastern tip of the region of Lombardy, its point shaped like a local cheese knife.

On this morning, like so many mornings in the northern Italian winter, the water and the land were covered with dense Lombard fog. It made driving treacherous, sometimes nearly impossible, but the Mantovani accepted it as a fact of life. The locals also believed, with some justification, that the moist air contributed to the quality of what the land produced, and helped age the cheeses and cure the meats for which the area was famous. Stumbling through zero visibility in the winter was a small price to pay.

The body glided under the layer of fog as it moved into the center of the river. It was too early in the day for any boats, which was why the dead man had always found this hour, just before dawn, to be the perfect time for fishing the dark waters. Usually his first cast was at a small bend where trout often congregated. They were huddled there now, just above the mud, but there would be nothing to tempt them on this morning.

In the distance a string of lights outlined the Via dei Molini causeway which connected Mantova's medieval center with flat farmland to the east. The water of the Lago Superiore narrowed toward the single passage under the causeway, taking the body with it. The lifeless figure swept slowly over the small dam that ran under the roadway, twirled for a few moments in the eddy below, and continued toward the middle of the Lago di Mezzo. The next barrier was another causeway, the last obstacle of any length between the city and the Po. But the capricious currents in this part of the river would keep the body here, as if they had decided the man should not be allowed to stray far from his home, even in death. The dark figure floated toward the shore and came to rest against the rocks below the walking path along the river's edge.

The grim ramparts of Castello di San Giorgio looked down on the scene. Even in its modern role as a museum the gray stone exuded cold malevolence. There was a time in Mantova's history when a body floating past its walls had been as normal as a farmer trudging to market – but this was not the fifteenth century.

The young jogger who found the body would have nightmares for weeks afterward.

*







Chapter One



Rick felt the faint vibration of his cell phone before hearing the ring. He pulled it from his pocket and saw that the number was from the States, though not an area code he recognized. Given the hour in Rome, the caller had to be an earlier riser — very early, if calling from the West Coast. He moved to the side of Piazza Navona and took a seat on one of its stone benches.

"Montoya."

"Mr. Montoya, my name is Alexis Coleman. I am in the employ of Angelo Rondini."

The voice was smooth and efficient. "In the employ" was an expression more appropriate for use in a nineteenth-century British novel than by a woman whose American accent Rick could not place. He prided himself on detecting accents, both American and Italian; it came with being a professional interpreter. But he couldn't decide what part of the country she was from. More intriguing was her tone. It implied that he would know who Angelo Rondini was.

"Good morning, Ms. Coleman. How can I help you?"

"Mr. Rondini would like to contract your services."

"I'm always glad to hear such words. How did he find out about my services? If I might ask."

"It is a perfectly reasonable question. The chief of the economics section in the embassy recommended you."

The economics counselor at the embassy in Rome was a good friend of Rick's father from an earlier assignment in their careers. It always helped to have friends in high places.

"Mr. Rondini spoke with Mr. Treacy?"

"Mr. Rondini spoke with the ambassador, who gave him Mr. Treacy's name. I called Mr. Treacy."

Aha. Not just anyone, Rick knew, could pick up the phone and talk to the American ambassador in Rome. Perhaps, like the ambassador, Mr. Rondini had been a major contributor to the president's election campaign. Whoever this Rondini guy was, he had clout. And he was above speaking to anyone lower than the ambassador in the embassy pecking order.

"What kind of interpreting would Mr. Rondini like me to perform for him?"

"Can you please hold for a moment, Mr. Montoya?"

Before he could answer she was replaced by classical music. Boccherini. Rick kept the phone to his ear and looked around the piazza. It was the usual mix of tourists and locals, most on their way to lunch, many stopping to watch the waters of the four rivers noisily recycle through Bernini's fountain. After a full three minutes, she returned.

"Sorry about that. Mr. Rondini is making a trip to Mantova, Italy, to attend a funeral and make contact with his family there. You will be his guide."

Not would, but will. He also noticed that she used the Italian "Mantova" instead of the anglicized "Mantua" that would be found on most maps in the States. The woman must have done her homework.

"It sounds interesting, Ms. Coleman, but I'm afraid that kind of thing is really not my usual —"

"I checked your website and saw your daily rate, Mr. Montoya. Mr. Rondini will double that. And cover your expenses, of course."

He looked at the phone and decided he'd heard right.

"When will Mr. Rondini need me, and for how long?"

"The funeral is next Thursday, so he is planning on arriving that morning. He can't be away for more than a week. I will send you the logistical details by e-mail today. I trust that will work with your schedule?"

At that moment Rick was working on a series of academic translations. It was boring sitting over his keyboard with a dictionary trying to make sense of someone's turgid Italian and then transforming it into equally turgid English. He was anxious to have a live interpreting job, and this one sounded intriguing as well as lucrative.

"Certainly. I'll juggle my schedule, but it can work."

"Excellent. My e-mail will have contact information, but you can call me at this number if absolutely necessary. Goodbye, Mr. Montoya."

She was gone before Rick could think of any other questions, let alone return her good-bye.
He looked up at the gray sheet of clouds that covered the city, perhaps portending another afternoon rain. The call had partially brightened his day, which needed some brightening. Not only was his work at the moment dull, his relationship with Betta Innocenti had been sliding into a predictable routine. Is this what happens when two people spend too much time together? A trip alone to Mantova might be just what he — and Betta — needed. She was immersed in a case of stolen paintings with the art police, so she might not even notice he was gone.

He kept the phone in his hand and scrolled through the numbers in his address book before hitting the one for the embassy. After talking to the switchboard operator and one secretary, he got through to the counselor for economic affairs.

"Ciao, Rick. I thought you might be calling."

"First, John, thanks for the recommendation. But tell me who this guy Rondini is. Besides being a friend of the ambassador."

Treacy laughed.

"You found that out. They were both on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but I don't think they're close friends. That Coleman woman's a piece of work, isn't she? Like talking to some kind of automaton."

"You think? I found her quite charming. Especially when she told me what Rondini was going to pay me. Listen, I'll look up Rondini on the Internet so as not to waste your time. You have better things to do. But thanks again for giving her my name. I'll let you know how it goes."

"Please do. And give my best to your mom and dad next time you Skype with them."

Rick promised he would. A few minutes later he was in his apartment, searching on his laptop for information about Angelo Rondini. He didn't have to go far, and began to scribble notes on a yellow legal pad as he read the screen.
Angelo Rondini, 78, born Voglia, Italy, widowed, one daughter, residences in Chicago and Marco Island, Florida, semi-retired from Rondini Enterprises (malls and shopping centers), serves on boards of directors at numerous corporations and national charities, art collector.

The photograph on the screen showed a man in a tuxedo with two other people who looked equally wealthy and of the same age, all holding champagne flutes. He had thinning but long white hair and wore glasses which were lightly tinted yellow. The event was a fund-raiser for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and these three looked like just the type of persons any community organization would kill for to have in attendance at their events. Nothing could be deduced from the expression on Rondini's face, not in this photo or any of the others that came up in the search. No kindly smile, but no stony expression either. Rick would have to wait until he actually met his temporary employer to make an assessment of the man. What was most intriguing was that Rondini had been born in Italy. There had to be a story in that.

Rick called his uncle. Commissario Piero Fontana was not at his desk at police headquarters, but the call was answered by his faithful secretary, Signora Rocca. It was a running joke in the building that she had started working in the questura when Rome became capital of Italy in the nineteenth century, using family connections to King Vittorio Emmanuele to get the job. She wasn't quite that old, but she did have connections, something Piero used sparingly and only when dealing with the most sensitive issues.

"Your uncle is out on a case, Riccardo. You can call him on his telefonino."

Not when he's working a case.

"Thank you, Signora, please tell him that I'll be going to Mantova on Wednesday. He can call me when he's free and I'll explain."

"I'll tell him. And how is that lovely little friend of yours?"

It was another of Signora Rocca's traits, an interest in the personal life of everyone she met. Not that she was nosy; it was a benign interest, like that of a maiden aunt or a grandmother. Importantly, she didn't share what she knew with others, which meant that police in the building came to her with personal problems, knowing it would go no farther than her desk. Her advice was usually sound. The Ann Landers of police headquarters. Today, Rick was not in the mood to share.

"Betta is fine. Working hard."

"You must bring her by some time so I can meet her."

After he hung up, Rick reluctantly returned to his translation. An hour later he put his computer on sleep and pulled out his red guide book for Lombardia. As he expected, there was a long entry on Mantova.

*
 
 

 

 



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