There was a prehistoric urinal and three wooden stalls. Marco went into the far one, locked the door, lowered the lid, and took a seat. He carefully opened his package and unfolded the sheets of paper. The first one was plain, white, no letterhead of any kind. When he saw the words "Dear Marco," he felt like crying.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear from you. I thanked God when you were released and I pray for your safety now. As you know, I will do anything to help.
Here is a stnartphone, state of the art and all that. The Europeans are ahead of us with cell phone and wireless Internet technology, so this should work fine over there. I've written some instructions on another sheet of paper. I know this will sound like Greek, but it's really not that complicated.
Don't try and call-it's too easy to track. Plus, you would have to use a name and set up an account. E-mail is the way. By using KwyteMail with encryption, it's impossible to track our messages. I suggest that you e-mail only me. I can then handle the relays.
On this end I have a new laptop that I keep near me at all times.
This will work, Marco. Trust me. As soon as you're online, email and we can chat.
Good Luck, Grinch(March 5)
Grinch? A code or something. He had not used their real names.
Marco studied the sleek device, thoroughly bewildered by it but also determined to get the damn thing going. He probed its small case, found the cash, and counted it slowly as if it were gold. The door opened and closed; someone was using the urinal. Marco could hardly breathe. Relax, he kept telling himself.
The restroom door opened and closed again, and he was alone. The page of instructions was handwritten, obviously when Neal didn't have a lot of time. It read:
Ankyo 850 PC Pocket Smartphone-fully charged battery-6 hours talk time before recharging, recharger included.
Step 1) Find Internet cafe with wireless access-list enclosed
Step 2) Either enter cafe or get within 200 feet of it
Step 3) Turn on, switch is in upper right-hand corner
Step 4) Watch screen for 'Access Area" then the question "Access Now?" Press "Yes" under screen; wait.
Step 5) Then push keypad switch, bottom right, and unfold keypad
Step 6) Press Wi-Fi access on screen
Step 7) Press "Start"for Internet browser
Step 8) At cursor, type "www.kwytefnail.com"
Step 9) Type user name "Grinch456"
Step 10) Type pass phrase "post hoc ergo propter hoc"
Step 11) Press "Compose" to bring up New Message Form
Step 12) Select my e-mail address: [email protected]
Step 13) Type your message to me
Step 14) Click on "Encrypt Message"
Step 15) Click "Send"
Step 16) Bingo-I'll have the message
More notes followed on the other side, but Marco needed to pause. The smartphone was growing heavier by the minute as it inspired more questions than answers. For a man who'd never been in an Internet cafe, he could not begin to understand how one could be used from across the street. Or within two hundred feet.
Secretaries had always handled the e-mail flood. He'd been much too busy to sit in front of a monitor.
There was an instruction booklet that he opened at random. He read a few lines and didn't understand a single phrase. Trust Neal, he told himself.
You have no choice here, Marco. You have to master this damn thing.
From a Web site called www.AxEss.com Neal had printed a list of free wireless Internet places in Bologna-three cafes, two hotels, one library, and one bookstore.
Marco folded his cash, stuck it in his pocket, then slowly put his package back together. He stood, flushed the toilet for some reason, and left the restroom. The phone, the papers, the case, and the small recharger were easily buried in the deep pockets of his parka.
The rain had turned to snow when he left the law school, but the covered sidewalks protected him and the crowd of students hurrying to lunch. As he drifted away from the university area, he pondered ways to hide the wonderful little assets Neal had sent him. The phone would never leave his person. Nor would the cash. But the paperwork-the letter, the instructions, the manual-where could he stash
them? Nothing was protected in his apartment. He saw in a store window an attractive shoulder bag of some sort. He went and inquired. It was a Silvio brand laptop case, navy blue, waterproof, made of a synthetic fabric that the saleslady could not translate. It cost sixty euros, and Marco reluctantly placed them on the counter. As she finished the sale, he carefully placed the smartphone and its related items into the bag. Outside, he flung it over his shoulder and tucked it snugly under his right arm.
The bag meant freedom for Marco Lazzeri. He would guard it with his life.
He found the bookstore on Via Ugo Bassi. The magazines were on the second level. He stood by the rack for five minutes, holding a soccer weekly while watching the front door for anyone suspicious. Silly. But it was a habit now. The Internet hookups were on the third floor, in a small coffee shop. He bought a pastry and a Coke and found a narrow booth where he could sit and watch everyone going and coming.
No one could find him there.
He pulled out his Ankyo 850 with as much confidence as he could muster and glanced through its manual. He reread Neal's instructions. He followed them nervously, typing on the tiny keypad with both thumbs, the way it was illustrated in the owner's manual. After each step he looked up to check the movements around the cafe.
The steps worked perfectly. He was online in short order, much to his amazement, and when the codes worked he was looking at a screen that was giving him the okay to write a message. Slowy, he moved his thumbs around and typed his first wireless Internet email:
Grinch: Got the package. You'll never know how much it means to me. Thank you for your help. Are you sure our messages are completely secure? If so, I will tell you more about my situation. I fear I am not safe. It's about 8:30 a.m. your time. Til send this message now, and check back in a few hours. Love, Marco
He sent the message, turned the machine off, then stayed for an hour poring over the manual. Before he left to meet Francesca, he turned it on again and followed the route to get online. On the screen
he tapped "Google Search," then typed in "Washington Post." Sand - berg's story caught his attention, and he scrolled through it.
He'd never met Teddy Maynard, but they had spoken several times by phone. Very tense conversations. The man had been practically dead ten years ago. In his other life Joel had butted heads a few times with the CIA, usually over shenanigans his defense-contractor clients were trying to pull.
Outside the bookstore, Marco sized up the street, saw nothing of interest, and began another long walk.
Cash for pardons? What a sensational story, but it was asking too much to believe that an outgoing president would take bribes like that. During his spectacular fall from power, Joel had read many things about himself, about half of them true. He'd learned the hard way to believe little of what got printed.
At an unnamed, unnumbered, nondescript building on Pinsker Street in downtown Tel Aviv, an agent named Efraim entered from the sidewalk and walked past the elevator to a dead-end corridor with one locked door. There was no knob, no handle. He pulled a device that resembled a small television remote from his pocket and aimed it at the door. Thick tumblers fell somewhere inside, a sharp click, and the door opened into one of the many safe houses maintained by the Mossad, the Israeli secret police. It had four rooms-two with bunk beds where Efraim and his three colleagues slept, a small kitchen where they cooked their simple meals, and a large cluttered workroom where they spent hours every day planning an operation that had been practically dormant for six years but was suddenly one of the Mossad's highest priorities.
The four were members of kidon, a small, tight unit of highly skilled field agents whose primary function was assassination. Quick, efficient, silent killing. Their targets were enemies of Israel who could not be brought to trial because its courts could not get jurisdiction. Most targets were in Arab and Islamic countries, but kidon were often used in the former Soviet bloc, Europe, Asia, even North Korea and the United States. They had no boundaries, no restraints, nothing to stop them from taking out those who wanted to destroy Israel. The men and women of kidon were fully licensed to kill for their country. Once a target was approved, in writing, by the current prime minister, an operation plan was put into place, a unit was organized, and the enemy of Israel was as good as dead. Obtaining such approval at the top had rarely been difficult.
Efraim tossed a bag of pastries onto one of the folding tables where Ran and Shaul were plowing through research. Amos was in a corner at the computer, studying maps of Bologna, Italy.
Most of their research was stale; it included pages of mainly useless background on Joel Backman, information that had been collected years ago. They knew everything about his chaotic personal life-the three ex-wives, the three children, the former partners, the girlfriends, the clients, the old lost friends from the power circles in D.C. When his killing had been approved six years earlier, another kidon had worked urgently putting together the background on Backman. A preliminary plan to kill him in a car accident in D.C. had been jettisoned when he suddenly pled guilty and fled to prison. Not even a kidon could reach him in protective custody at Rudley.
The background was important now only because of his son. Since his surprise pardon and disappearance seven weeks earlier, the Mossad had kept two agents close to Neal Backman. They rotated every three or four days so no one in Culpeper, Virginia, would get suspicious; small towns with their nosy neighbors and bored cops presented enormous challenges. One agent, a pretty lady with a German accent, had actually chatted with Neal on Main Street. She claimed to be a tourist and needed directions to Montpelier, the nearby home of President James Madison. She flirted, or tried her best to, and was perfectly willing go further. He didn't take the bait. They'd bugged his home and office, and they listened to cell phone conversations. From a lab in Tel Aviv, they read every one of his office e-mails and those from home as well. They monitored his bank account and his credit card spending. They knew he'd made a quick trip to Alexandria six days earlier, but they did not know why.
They were watching Backman's mother too, in Oakland, but the poor lady was fading fast. For years they had debated the idea of slipping her one of the poison pills from their amazing arsenal. They would then ambush her son at her funeral. However, the kidon manual on assassination prohibited the killing of family members unless said members were also involved in threats to Israeli security.
But the idea was still debated, with Amos being its most vocal proponent.
They wanted Backman dead, but they also wanted him to live a few hours before passing on. They needed to chat with him, to ask some questions, and if the answers weren't forthcoming they knew how to make him talk. Everyone talked when the Mossad really wanted answers.
"We have found six agents who speak Italian," Efraim said. "Two will be here this afternoon at three, for a meeting." None of the four spoke Italian, but all spoke perfect English, as well as Arabic. Among them there were eight other languages.
Each of the four had combat experience, extensive computer training, and were skilled at crossing borders (with and without paperwork), interrogation, disguises, and forgery. And they had the ability to kill in cold blood with no regrets. The average age was thirty-four, and each had been involved with at least five successful kidon assassinations.
When fully operational, their kidon would have twelve members. Four would carry out the actual killing, and the other eight would provide cover, surveillance, and tactical support, and would clean up after the hit.
"Do we have an address?" Amos asked from the computer.
"No, not yet," said Efraim. "And I'm not sure we'll get one. This is coming through counterintelligence."
"There are half a million people in Bologna," Amos said almost to himself.
"Four hundred thousand," said Shaul. "And a hundred thousand of those are students."
"We're supposed to get a picture of him," Efraim said, and the other three stopped what they were doing and looked up. "There's a photo of Backman somewhere, one taken recently, after prison. Getting a copy is a possibility."
"That would certainly be helpful," Rafi said.
They had a hundred old photos of Joel Backman. They had studied every square centimeter of his face, every wrinkle, every vein in his eyes, every strand of hair on his head. They had counted his teeth, and they had copies of his dental records. Their specialists across town at the headquarters of Israel's Central Institute for Intelligence and Special Duties, better known as Mossad, had prepared excellent computer images of what Backman would look like now, six years after the world last saw him. There was a series of digital projections of Backman's face at a hefty 240 pounds, his weight when he pled guilty. And another series of Backman at 180, his rumored weight now. They had worked with his hair, leaving it natural, and predicting its color for a fifty-two-year-old man. They colored it black and red and brown. They cut it and left it longer. They put a dozen different pairs of glasses on his face, then added a beard, first a dark one, then a gray one.
It all came back to the eyes. Study the eyes.
Though Efraim was the leader of the unit, Amos had seniority. He had been assigned to Backman in 1998 when the Mossad first heard rumors of the JAM software that was being shopped around by a powerful Washington lobbyist. Working through their ambassador in Washington, the Israelis pursued the purchase of JAM, thought they had a deal, but were stiff-armed when Backman and Jacy Hubbard took their goods elsewhere.
The selling price was never made known. The deal was never consummated. Some money changed hands, but Backman, for some reason, did not deliver the product.
Where was it now? Had it ever existed in the first place?
Only Backman knew.
The six-year hiatus in the hunt for Joel Backman had given Amos ample time to fill in some gaps. He believed, as did his superiors, that the so-called Neptune satellite system was a Red Chinese creation; that the Chinese had spent a hefty chunk of their national treasury in building it; that they had stolen valuable technology from the Americans to do so; that they had brilliantly disguised the launching of the system and fooled US., Russian, and Israeli satellites; and that they had been unable to reprogram the system to override the software JAM had uploaded. Neptune was useless without JAM, and the Chinese would give up their Great Wall to get their hands on it and Backman.
Amos, and Mossad, also believed that Farooq Khan, the last surviving member of the trio and the principal author of the software, had been tracked down by the Chinese and murdered eight months ago. Mossad was on his trail when he disappeared.
They also believed the Americans were still not sure who built Neptune, and this intelligence failure was an ongoing, almost permanent embarrassment. American satellites had dominated the skies for forty years and were so effective they could see through clouds, spot a machine gun under a tent, intercept a wire transfer from a drug dealer, eavesdrop on a conversation in a building, and find oil under the desert with infrared imagery. They were vastly superior to anything the Russians had put up. For another system of equal or better technology to be designed, built, launched, and to become operational without the knowledge of the CIA and the Pentagon had been unthinkable.
Israeli satellites were very good, but not as good as the Americans'. Now it appeared to the intelligence world that Neptune was more advanced than anything the United States had ever launched.
These were only assumptions; little had been confirmed. The only copy of JAM had been hidden. Its creators were dead.
Amos had lived the case for almost seven years, and he was thrilled to have a new kidon in place and was urgently making plans. Time was very short. The Chinese would blow up half of Italy if they thought Backman would end up in the rubble. The Americans might try and get him too. On their soil he was protected by their Constitution, with its layers of safeguards. The laws required that he be treated fairly then tucked away in prison and protected around the clock. But on the other side of the world he was fair game.
Kidon had been used to neutralize a few wayward Israelis, but never at home. The Americans would do the same.
Neal Backman kept his new, very thin laptop in the same old battered briefcase he hauled home every night. Lisa had not noticed it because he never took it out. He kept it close, always within a step or two.
He changed his morning routine slightly. He'd bought a card from Jerry his Java, a fledgling coffee and doughnut chain that was trying to lure customers with fancy coffee and free newspapers, magazines, and wireless Internet access. The franchise had converted an abandoned drive-through taco hut at the edge of town, jazzed it up with funky decor, and in its first two months was doing a booming business.
There were three cars in front of him at the drive-through window. His laptop was on his knees, just under the steering wheel. At the curb, he ordered a double mocha, no whipped cream, and waited for the cars in front to inch forward. He pecked away with both hands as he waited. Once online, he quickly went to KwyteMail. He typed in his user name-Grinchl23-then his pass phrase-post hoc ergo propter hoc. Seconds later there it was-the first message from his father.
Neal held his breath as he read, then exhaled mightily and eased forward in line. It worked! The old man had figured it out!
Quickly, he typed:
Marco: Our messages cannot be traced. You can say anything you want, but it's always best to say as little as possible. Delighted you're there and out ofRudley. I'll go online each day at this time-at precisely 7:50 a.m. EST. Gotta run. Grinch
He placed the laptop in the passenger seat, lowered his window, and paid almost four bucks for a cup of coffee. As he pulled away, he kept glancing at the computer to see how long the access signal would last. He turned onto the street, drove no more than two hundred feet, and the signal was gone.
Last November, after Arthur Morgan's astounding defeat, Teddy Maynard began devising his Backman pardon strategy. With his customary meticulous planning, he prepared for the day when moles would leak the word of Backmans whereabouts.To tip the Chinese, and do so in a manner that would not arouse suspicion, Teddy began looking for the perfect snitch.
Her name was Helen Wang, a fifth-generation Chinese American who'd worked for eight years at Langley as an analyst on Asian issues. She was very smart, very attractive, and spoke passable Mandarin Chinese. Teddy got her a temporary assignment at the State Department, and there she began cultivating contacts with diplomats from Red China, some of whom were spies themselves and most of whom were constantly on the prowl for new agents.
The Chinese were notorious for their aggressive tactics in recruiting spies. Each year 25,000 of their students were enrolled in American universities, and the secret police tracked them all. Chinese businessmen were expected to cooperate with central intelligence when they returned home. The thousands of American companies doing business on the mainland were constantly monitored. Their executives were researched and watched. The good prospects were sometimes approached.
When Helen Wang 'accidentally" let it slip that her background included a few years at the CIA, and that she hoped to return soon, she quickly had the attention of intelligence chiefs in Beijing. She accepted an invitation from a new friend to have lunch at a swanky D.C. restaurant, then dinner. She played her role beautifully, always reticent about their overtures but always reluctantly saying yes. Her detailed memos were hand delivered to Teddy after every encounter.
When Backman was suddenly freed from prison, and it became apparent he'd been stashed away and would not surface, the Chinese put tremendous pressure on Helen Wang. They offered her $100,000 for information about his location. She appeared to be frightened by the offer, and for a few days broke off contact. With perfect timing, Teddy got her assignment at State canceled and called her back to Langley For two weeks she had nothing to do with her old friends undercover at the Chinese embassy.
Then she called them and the payoff soon climbed to $500,000. Helen turned nasty and demanded II million, claiming that she was risking her career and her freedom and it was certainly worth more money than that. The Chinese agreed.
The day after Teddy was fired, she called her handler and requested a secret meeting. She gave him a sheet of paper with wiring instructions to a bank account in Panama, one that was secretly owned by the CIA. When the money was received, she said, they would meet again and she would have the location of Joel Backman. She would also give them a recent photo of Joel Backman.
The drop was a "brush by," an actual physical meeting between mole and handler, done in such a way that no one would notice anything unusual. After work, Helen Wang stopped at a Kroger store in John u^u Bethesda. She walked to the end of aisle twelve, where the magazines and paperbacks were displayed. Her handler was loitering at the rack with a copy of Lacrosse Magazine. Helen picked up another copy of the same magazine and quickly slid an envelope into it. She flipped pages with passable boredom, then put the magazine back on the rack. Her handler was shuffling through the sports weeklies. Helen wandered away, but only after she saw him take her copy of Lacrosse Magazine.
For a change, the cloak-and-dagger routine wasn't needed. Helens friends at the CIA weren't watching because they had arranged the drop. They'd known her handler for many years.
The envelope contained one sheet of paper-an eight-by-ten color xerox photo of Joel Backman as he was apparently walking down the street. He was much thinner, had the beginnings of a grayish goatee, European-style eyeglasses, and was dressed like a local. Handwritten at the bottom of the page was: Joel Backman, Via Fondazza, Bologna, Italy. The handler gawked at it as he sat in his car, then he sped away to the embassy of the People his Republic of China on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Washington.
At first the Russians seemed to have no interest in the whereabouts of Joel Backman. Their signals were read a variety of ways at Langley. No early conclusions were made, none were possible. For years the Russians had secretly maintained that the so-called Neptune system was one of their own, and this had contributed mightily to the confusion at the CIA.
Much to the surprise of the intelligence world, Russia was managing to keep aloft about 160 reconnaissance satellites a year, roughly the same number as the former Soviet Union. Its robust presence in space had not diminished, contrary to what the Pentagon and the CIA had predicted.
In 1999, a defector from the GRU, the Russian military's intelligence arm and successor to the KGB, informed the CIA that Neptune was not the property of the Russians. They had been caught off guard as badly as the Americans. Suspicion was focused on the Red Chinese, who were far behind in the satellite game.
Or were they?
The Russians wanted to know about Neptune, but they were not willing to pay for information about Backman. When the overtures from Langley were largely ignored, the same color photo sold to the Chinese was anonymously e-mailed to four Russian intelligence chiefs operating under diplomatic cover in Europe.
The leak to the Saudis was handled through an executive of an American oil company stationed in Riyadh. His name was Taggett and he'd lived there for more than twenty years. He was fluent in Arabic and moved in the social circles as easily as any foreigner. He was especially close to a mid-level bureaucrat in the Saudi Foreign Ministry office, and over late-afternoon tea he told him that his company had once been represented by Joel Backman. Further, and much more important, Taggett claimed to know where Backman was hiding.
Five hours later, Taggett was awakened by a buzzing doorbell. Three young gentlemen in business suits pushed their way into his apartment and demanded a few moments of his time. They apologized, explained that they were with some branch of the Saudi police, and really needed to talk. When pressed, Taggett reluctantly passed on the information he had been coached to disclose.
Joel Backman was hiding in Bologna, Italy, under a different name. That was all he knew.
Could he find out more? they asked.
They asked him if he would leave the next morning, return to his company's headquarters in New York, and dig for more information about Backman. It was very important to the Saudi government and the royal family.
Taggett agreed to do so. Anything for the king.
Every year in May, just before Ascension Day, the people of Bologna march up the Colle della Guardia from the Saragozza gate, along the longest continuous arcade in the world, through all 666 arches and past all fifteen chapels, to the summit, to the Santuario di San Luca. In the sanctuary they remove their Madonna and proceed back down to the city, where they parade her through the crowded streets and finally place her in the Cathedral of San Pietro, where she stays for eight days until another parade takes her home. It's a festival unique to Bologna, and has gone on uninterrupted since 1476.
As Francesca and Joel sat in the Santuario di San Luca, Francesca was describing the ritual and how much it meant to the people of Bologna. Pretty, but just another empty church as far as Marco was concerned.
They had taken the bus this time, thus avoiding the 666 arches and the 3.6-kilometer hike up the hill. His calves still hurt from the last visit to San Luca, three days ago.
She was so distracted by weightier matters that she was lapsing into English and didn't seem to realize it. He did not complain. When she finished with the festival, she began pointing to the interesting elements in the cathedral-the architecture and construction of the dome, the painting of the frescoes. Marco was fighting desperately to pay attention. The domes and faded frescoes and marble crypts and dead saints were all running together now in Bologna, and he caught himself thinking of warmer weather. Then they could stay outdoors and talk. They could visit the city's lovely parks and if she so much as mentioned a cathedral he would revolt.
She wasn't thinking of warmer weather. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
"You've already done that one," he interrupted when she pointed at a painting above the baptistery.
"I'm sorry. Am I boring you?"
He started to blurt out the truth, but instead said, "No, but I've seen enough."
They left the sanctuary and sneaked around behind the church, to her secret pathway that led down a few steps to the best view of the city. The last snow was melting quickly on the red tiled roofs. It was the eighteenth of March.
She lit a cigarette and seemed content to loiter in silence and admire Bologna. "Do you like my city?" she asked, finally.
"Yes, very much.1'
"What do you like about it?"
After six years in prison, any city would do. He thought for a moment, then said, "It's a real city, with people living where they work. It's safe and clean, timeless. Things haven't changed much over the centuries. The people enjoy their history and they're proud of their accomplishments."
She nodded slightly, approving of his analysis. "I'm baffled by Americans," she said. "When I guide them through Bologna they're always in a hurry, always anxious to see one sight so they can cross it off the list and move on to the next. They're always asking about tomorrow, and the next day. Why is this?"
"I'm the wrong person to ask."
"I'm Canadian, remember?"
"You're not Canadian."
"No, I'm not. I'm from Washington."
"I've been there. I've never seen so many people racing around, going nowhere. I don't understand the desire for such a hectic life. Everything has to be so fast-work, food, sex."
"I haven't had sex in six years."
She gave him a look that conveyed many questions. "I really don't want to talk about that."
"You brought it up."
She puffed on the cigarette as the air cleared. "Why haven't you had sex in six years?"
"Because I was in prison, in solitary confinement."
She flinched slightly and her spine seemed to straighten. "Did you kill someone?"
"No, nothing like that. I'm pretty harmless."
Another pause, another puff. "Why are you here?"
"I really don't know."
"How long will you stay?"
"Maybe Luigi can answer that."
"Luigi," she said as if she wanted to spit. She turned and began walking. He followed along because he was supposed to. "What are you hiding from?" she asked.
"It's a very, very long story', and you really don't want to know."
"Are you in danger?"
"I think so. I'm not sure how much, but let's just say that I'm afraid to use my real name and I'm afraid to go home."
"Sounds like danger to me. Where does Luigi fit in?"
"He's protecting me, I think."
"For how long?"
"I really don't know."
"Why don't you simply disappear?"
"That's what I'm doing now. I'm in the middle of my disappearance. And from here, where would I go? I have no money, no passport, no identification. I don't officially exist."
"This is very confusing."
"Yes. Why don't we drop it."
He glanced away for a second and did not see her fall. She was wearing black leather boots with low heels, and the left one twisted violently on a rock in the narrow pathway. She gasped and fell hard onto the walkway, bracing herself at the last second with both hands. Her purse flew forward. She shrieked something in Italian. Marco quickly knelt down to grab her.
"It's my ankle," she said, grimacing. Her eyes were already moist, her pretty face twisted in pain.
He gently lifted her from the wet pathway and carried her to a nearby bench, then retrieved her purse. "I must've tripped," she kept saying. "I'm sorry." She fought the tears but soon gave up.
"It's okay, it's okay," Marco said, kneeling in front of her. "Can I touch it?"
She slowly lifted her left leg, but the pain was too great.
"Let's leave the boot on," Marco said, touching it with great care.
"I think it's broken," she said. She pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped her eyes. She was breathing heavy and gritting her teeth. "I'm sorry."
"It his okay." Marco looked around; they were very much alone. The bus up to San Luca had been virtually empty, and they had seen no one in the past ten minutes. "I'll, uh, go inside and find help."
"Don't move. I'll be right back." He patted her knee and she managed a smile. Then he hustled away, almost falling himself. He ran to the rear of the church and saw no one. Where, exactly, does one find an office in a cathedral? Where is the curator, administrator, head priest? Who's in charge of this place? Outside, he circled San Luca twice before he saw a custodian emerge from a partially hidden door by the gardens.
"Mi pud aiutare?" he called out. Can you help me?
The custodian stared and said nothing. Marco was certain he had spoken clearly. He walked closer and said, "La mia arnica si e fatta male." My lady friend is hurt.
"Dov'e?" the man grunted. Where?
Marco pointed and said, "Li, dietro alia chiesa." Over there, behind the church.
"Aspetti." Wait. He turned and walked back to the door and opened it.
"Si sbrighi, per favora." Please hurry.
A minute or two dragged by, with Marco waiting nervously, wanting to dash back and check on Francesca. If she'd broken a bone, then shock might set in quickly. A larger door below the baptistery opened, and a gentleman in a suit came rushing out with the custodian behind him.
"La mia arnica e caduta," Marco said. My friend fell.
"Where is she?" asked the gentleman in excellent English. They were cutting across a small brick patio, dodging unmelted snow.
"Around back, by the lower ledge. It's her ankle; she thinks she broke it. We might need an ambulance."
Over his shoulder the gentleman snapped something at the custodian, who disappeared.
Francesca was sitting on the edge of the bench with as much dignity as possible. She held the tissue at her mouth; the crying had stopped. The gentleman didn't know her name, but he had obviously seen her before at San Luca. They chatted in Italian, and Marco missed most of it.
Her left boot was still on, and it was agreed that it should remain so, to prevent swelling. The gentleman, Mr. Coletta, seemed to know his first aid. He examined her knees and hands. They were scratched and sore, but there was no bleeding. "It's just a bad sprain," she said. "I really don't think it's broken."
"An ambulance will take forever," the gentleman said. "I'll drive you to the hospital."
A horn honked nearby. The custodian had fetched a car and pulled up as close as possible.
"I think I can walk," Francesca said gamely, trying to stand.
"No, we'll help you," Marco said. Each grabbed an elbow and slowly raised her to her feet. She grimaced when she put pressure on the foot, but said, "Its not broken. Just a sprain." She insisted on walking. They half carried her toward the car.
Mr. Coletta took charge and arranged them in the backseat so that her feet were in Marco's lap, elevated, and her back was resting against the left rear door. When his passengers were properly in place, he jumped behind the wheel and shifted gears. They crawled in reverse along a shrub-lined alley, then onto a narrow paved road. Soon, they were moving down the hill, headed for Bologna.
Francesca put on her sunglasses to cover her eyes. Marco noticed a trickle of blood on her left knee. He took the tissue from her hand and began to dab it. "Thank you," she whispered. "I'm sorry I've ruined your day."
"Please stop that," he said with a smile.
It was actually the best day with Francesca. The fall was humbling her and making her seem human. It was evoking, however unwilling, honest emotions. It was allowing sincere physical contact, one person genuinely trying to help another. It was shoving him into her life. Whatever happened next, whether at the hospital or at her home, he would at least be there for a moment. In the emergency, she was needing him, though she certainly didn't want that.
As he held her feet and stared blankly out the window, Marco realized how desperately he craved a relationship of any kind, with any person.
Any friend would do.
At the foot of the hill, she said to Mr. Coletta, "I would like to go to my apartment."
He looked in the rearview mirror and said, "But I think you should see a doctor."
"Maybe later. I'll rest for a bit and see how it feels." The decision was made; arguing wouldVe been useless.
Marco had some advice too, but he held it. He wanted to see where she lived.
"Very well," said Mr. Coletta.
"It's Via Minzoni, near the train station."
Marco smiled to himself, quite proud that he knew the street. He could picture it on a map, at the northern edge of the old city, a nice section but not the high-rent district. He had walked it at least once. In fact, he'd found an early-hours coffee bar at a spot where the street ended at the Piazza dei Martiri. As they zipped along the perimeter, in the mid-afternoon traffic, Marco glanced at every street sign, took in every intersection, and knew exactly where he was at all times.
Not another word was spoken. He held her feet, her stylish but well-used black boots slightly soiling his wool slacks. At that moment, he couldn't have cared less. When they turned onto Via Minzoni, she said, "Down about two blocks, on the right." A moment later she said, "Just ahead. There's a spot behind that green BMW."
They gently extracted her from the rear seat and got her to the sidewalk, where she shook free for a second and tried to walk. The ankle gave way; they caught her. 'I'm on the second floor," she said, gritting her teeth. There were eight apartments. Marco watched carefully as she pushed the button next to the name of Giovanni Ferro. A female voice answered.
"Francesca," she said, and the door clicked. They stepped into a foyer that was dark and shabby. To the right was an elevator with its door open, waiting. The three of them filled it tightly. "I'm really fine now," she said, obviously trying to lose both Marco and Mr. Coletta.
"We need to get some ice on it," Marco said as they began a very slow ride up.
The elevator made a noisy stop, its door finally opened, and they shuffled out, both men still holding Francesca by the elbows. Her apartment was only a few steps away, and when they arrived at the door Mr. Coletta had gone far enough.
"I'm very sorry about this," he said. "If there are medical bills, would you please call me?"
"No, you're very kind. Thank you so much."
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