He was dozing as the train edged its way into the terminus. Cries of “Firenze! Firenze!” brought him back to consciousness. The young woman seated across the table from him was standing up and smiling at him, seeming to acknowledge his fatigue. “Arrivederci, signore.” In reply he simply nodded and looked away.The train had been full ever since it left Bologna. He had wanted to reserve a seat but they had warned him off doing that. “No record of your name” their instructions were explicit. By now the compartment was emptying. He reached up for his small case and joined the crowds on the platform. As he walked towards the ticket barrier he noticed a poliziotto standing just to the side of the ticket collector. Immediately a sense of panic rose within him but it only required a moment’s thought to remember that he had nothing to hide. His case contained a canvas holdall, nothing else. There was nothing to suggest that he was anything other than an ordinary passenger. He passed through the barrier, studiously avoiding the gaze of the poliziotto.
He had not been to Florence before today even though he lived only a couple of hours from the city. Life was hectic enough with the business and his young family. It had not been easy these last two years; demand had dropped, the needs of his young children had become more and more pressing, money was in short supply. He always thought of Florence, with its jewellers lining the Ponte Vecchio, as a rich city, more cultured than Bologna. He resented that and stayed away.
He walked down the main concourse. His eye took in the vast size, the white stone, a design that was approved by Mussolini. His father had been a partisan in the War, a member of the socialist Matteotti Brigade. He had died a hero at the hands of the Fasciste, at least that is what his widow always maintained. He and his brother were raised by his grandparents, out in the country, whilst their mother tried to make a living in the city. He had no love for Mussolini. He stared out into the city. Close by was a large green and white church. He knew enough to identify it as Santa Maria Novella. It was still raining.
In his head he rehearsed his instructions. Nothing written down for that would be too dangerous, everything must be memorised. It was mid-afternoon, too soon to go to the gallery. He had time to kill; he had no desire to wander the streets for the rain was pouring with an intensity that would have soaked him within a minute. He cursed himself for forgetting his umbrella; he would have to buy one. Spotting a tabaccaio across the concourse he saw that it had a container full of umbrellas for sale, capitalising on a seller’s market in this relentless rain. He selected the most sturdy one that he could find.
“4000 lire, signore.”
“Santo cielo! 4000 lire, just for an umbrella!”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “That’s the price, take it or leave it. There’s plenty more that will have it.”
He knew that was true. It had been raining every day for a month, the umbrella trade was sure to be booming. “OK, OK.” He paid up with as much good grace as he could muster. The tabaccaio owner was unmoved.
Out in the piazza he raised his new acquisition; actually it was not bad, it kept him reasonably dry. He crossed over to the underpass to avoid the hordes of buses that would have otherwise blocked his route. In the subway he noted a number of shops; they were closing early. The next day was Armed Forces Day, a public holiday. That was why this day had been chosen. He noticed that water was beginning to pool on the floor of the passageway but with a series of athletic leaps he managed to keep his feet dry. Emerging once more he was confronted with the entrance to Santa Maria Novella. With so much time to kill he might as well go in, at least he would stay dry.
The interior of the church was quiet, just the sound of footfalls echoing around the transept. He stopped to admire a painting that was identified as Masaccio’s Santa Trinità, amazed at the way it seemed three-dimensional although painted on a flat wall. He continued to wander around the building with no particular purpose. In the cloisters his gaze was arrested by a faded fresco. A label told him that this was The Flood by Paolo Uccello. He knew him as the painter of The Battle of San Romano, the series of three huge paintings that were now separated across Europe, one in London, one in Paris and one here in Florence in the Uffizi Gallery. He often wondered why they were never brought together again, as the artist had intended but then he knew very little about the art world, at least until now.
The visit had come in the early evening in late summer, not long before he would close up the business for the night. Two men, smartly dressed, had entered quietly.
“Signore. I think you had better close up” the taller of the two men nodded towards the door.
“Scusi. It is not quite time yet.” Who were these two men who were so quietly threatening?
“Now, I think, signore. We have to talk.” He did as he was asked, locking the door and lowering the shutters.
“Lovely stuff you have here, very expensive no doubt.”
He did not reply. This was very worrying.
“Well, signore, we shall not waste your time. The people whom we represent” and here he spoke as if he were an attorney which clearly he was not, “ and who have lent you a considerable amount of money, are rather anxious to have it back. They were rather expecting to have it back by now.”
He felt a cold sweat break out on his back, his throat dried up making it difficult to speak. “I know, I’m sorry. I have tried to keep up with the repayments but business, you know, it’s not good these days.”
“Indeed. Understandable. Do you know how much you owe?”
He thought for a bit. “Perhaps 20,000 lire?” He really had no idea.
The second man laughed but there was no amusement in his voice. “Signore, you joke with us. 20,000 lire! You owe ten times that amount – 200,000 lire.”
This fell like a hammer blow. 200,000 lire, he couldn’t possibly pay back that amount. “Are you sure? I never imagined it was that much.” He was frantically calculating the value of his stock, nowhere near that amount, his premises and the apartment attached were leased. He was already behind with the rent.
“Interest payments. You have perhaps forgotten them They mount up, you know.”
“I can’t possibly find that amount of money. It’s impossible.
The larger man shrugged his shoulders. “We’re reasonable people. We’ll come back in a week. Perhaps we can sort it out then.”
He let them out of the closed shop, it was already dark outside, raining a little. As he saw them climb into a black Mercedes and drive slowly down the narrow street his mind was spiralling into a confusion and then a panic. 200,000 lire, he couldn’t possibly find that. At the same time he was cursing himself for going to that loan shark to try and save the business. But what could he have done? The sodding banks would not lend to him. He had had no alternative.
So now what could he do? And if he didn’t pay, what then? He knew enough to recognise the hand of the Mafia. His two visitors may have appeared like respectable attorneys but he could detect the implied violence that lay behind their careful words. He was really frightened.
“Darling,” it was Maria, calling from the apartment. “I have your supper ready.” He walked through the adjoining to their small living quarters. Food was laid out in the kitchen. “Who were you talking to? In the shop.”
He panicked for a moment. He must keep this from Maria. “Oh, just reps. They wanted me to stock their range. Too cheap and nasty for me. I got rid of them.”
“You and your high standards. Perhaps there are enough people who will buy cheap and nasty. Not many people can afford what you stock.” They had had this argument before. He did not wish to resuscitate it.
“Maybe. Come on, let’s eat.”
A week later they returned. He decided that he would have to be straight with them. “I’ve given this much thought. I know I owe your boss money but I don’t believe it is as much as you say it is. I have decided to go down market and stock cheaper, more popular, goods. I am certain that I can pay off the loan at, say, 5000 lire per week.” He stopped and watched them intently. They were silent, they did not even look at each other. The taller man turned to face him.
“I think you mistake us, signore. What makes you think that that offer could be acceptable to us? We need 200,000 lire from you and we need it now. There are certain ways of doing this, messy and unpleasant but we are reasonable men, we have no wish to resort to such measures. Nevertheless the person that we represents dearly wants his money.”
“I’m sorry. There is nothing I can do, I just don’t have that amount of money.” He expected a violent reaction to this but was surprised when none came.
“In which case perhaps we can find a way for you to earn it for us.”
“Earn it for you?”
“Yes, there may be a way. We shall be in touch. In the meantime speak to no-one about this. I mean no-one.”
He did not have to wait for long. They returned within days. As they explained what he had to do his incredulity grew. He doubted whether he was capable of what they were asking of him. It was soon made clear to him that he had no choice.
He stared at the fresco. It depicted the flood receding, drowned corpses, a man wearing a strange collar, perhaps some kind of a lifebelt. He could hear the power of the rain outside the church. Was this painting a premonition? He shuddered at the thought.
It was time to go to the gallery. Despite his new umbrella he wad drenched by the time he arrived at the biglietteria. He presented his money.
“Identity card please, signore.” He knew that he would be asked for that. He had left his wallet in a rubbish bin at the station. No means of identification apart from the card.
“Leave your bag over there, umbrella too.” She was pointing to a small alcove in the corner of the entrance hall. Then she handed him his ticket.
He was not used to art galleries. He guessed that you moved slowly even though you knew exactly where you were going. As he walked he stared at the paintings but without comprehension. His mind was on his instructions. He must not fail.
He had told Maria that he had to go away for a couple of days. “New stock. I need to go and see it.” She was reassured that he was taking her advice and going for less expensive lines. He did not disabuse her of that notion.
He had passed through a series of rooms in a reverie, in that sense indistinguishable from the sparse number of other visitors that perambulated the gallery with him. Suddenly he was woken from his daze. He was standing in front of a massive painting, Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, a fight scene devoid of violence. He looked at his watch, fifteen minutes to the gallery’s closing time. He moved on through the next room, not stopping to look, and finally he was there; he had reached his goal.
A smallish portrait, painted on wood. The work of one of the Pollaiolo brothers, Piero, it depicted Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan. It was a strange posture, a haughty look and an elongated index finger. His tunic was covered with embroidered fleur-de-lys. The nose was recognisable, hadn’t he seen a similar nose on another Sforza, a few rooms back.
There was no time to linger. The attendants were beginning to announce the gallery’s closure. He looked around the room. He had been told that there would be a door. He stared about him, at first not seeing it but then, there it was, in the corner, half hidden by a curtain. A sign on it read Vietato Ingresso. He waited until the room was empty, then walked briskly towards the door. He seized the round handle with his right hand and turned. It was stiff but with a bit of effort the door swung open. Inside he found shelves, a table, a gas ring with a coffee percolator balanced on it. No window to the outside and the light was out.
There must be an insider, he told himself, someone who would leave the door unlocked. Not my business, concentrate on what comes next.
Time passed slowly. He was feeling hungry but there was nothing to be done about that. Then he remembered, identity card. He must get rid of that but it would have to wait. The rain outside now sounded torrential. He began to swear, the enormity of his situation began to flood his mind. “God awful, shitty place. Fucking raining all the time.” The rain continued unabated.
Now his watch told him it was 2 am. Just an hour to go. He began to feel more positive about his mission. They had told him that, if he succeeded, his debt would be wiped out. He believed them, somewhere in the back of his mind he knew you could trust the word of a mafioso.
At that same moment up in the hills above the city an engineer was watching a dam with increasing concern. The pressure of the water in the upstream reservoir was getting dangerously high. One of his men had reported that there was a crack developing in the downstream structure of the dam. This was not good, the rain continued to fall in a biblical deluge. He picked up the phone to report to his superiors but the line was dead. He knew he could prevaricate no longer.
“Open the sluices.”
His men looked at him in horror. “Signore, the river is already full. This is going to flood the city.”
“Open the sluices, I said! There is no alternative if we are to stop this bloody thing bursting.”
In the end it didn’t take him long. He crept out of the room into a darkened gallery. His eyes were dark-adapted from his incarceration in the black room. Within a moment he was standing in front of the painting. He reached up and lifted it down. It was only then that realised that it should have been alarmed but no sound came. Insider help again, he surmised.
The painting was not heavy. He carried it under his arm as he groped his way down to the entrance foyer. His suitcase was still there. Quickly he undid the catches and lifted the lid. Inside there was nothing except a large canvas bag. He pulled this out and placed the painting inside. There were straps that closed it tight around its contents. On the front of the bag was a large label that read ‘Vicenzo and brothers. Stationery supplies.’
Once again he was conscious of the torrential rain outside. He felt around and discovered his umbrella. Now he was ready to go. They had told him how to exit the building. He went down into the basement, feeling his way carefully along a corridor and up some steps. At the top he was confronted with a fire door. He pushed it firmly but it would not budge. He took a pace back and charged the door with his shoulder. It burst open and a blast of cold air rushed in. He raised his umbrella and set off.
They had given him a strict itinerary to take from the gallery to the station. Not the direct route, he was to follow narrow streets and alleyways. He had memorised the map.
He went down into the underpass which would take him to the piazza in front of the station. Water pooled on the floor, above the level of his shoes but he did not mind; his feet were already soaked.
He was halfway along the underpass when another sound stopped him in his tracks, a sound as if an express train was coming up behind him. Instinctively he turned, there was hardly a moment for fear before a huge wall of water, higher than his head, swept down and engulfed him. He dropped the canvas bag containing the painting and struggled to swim. In vain, it was useless. He knew he was drowning. All he thought before consciousness left him for the last time was what a shame it was, the mission was nearly accomplished.
The head of water released by the dam had travelled at 55 km/hr down the valley to the city. At that point the Arno burst its banks and the city was rapidly and precipitately inundated. The wave of flood water that engulfed the underpass at the station killed a number of people, commuters mostly. Their bodies were recovered and identified with the exception of one, a man in his thirties who carried no means of identity. His body lay in the morgue for months but no-one came forward to identify it. The carabinieri made some perfunctory enquiries but, as there had been so many deaths, this corpse was not given much attention. Eventually it was buried in an unmarked grave.
The destruction caused by the flood to the art works of the city was huge. Many thousands of painting, sculptures and manuscripts were damaged, destroyed or lost. At the Uffizi gallery the director puzzled that, even though there was some damage at ground floor level, just one painting from the first floor, the portrait of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, was missing.
No-one had seen a canvas bag being swept through the streets by the floodwaters, to end up in the turbulent Arno whence it disappeared towards the sea. Perhaps it was discovered eventually.