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The late afternoon sun slanted through the tall windows opening onto the Grand Canal. There were silken peacocks in the velvet draperies and they stirred in the salty Adriatic breeze. These warm evening zephyrs sent sunstruck motes of dust swirling indolently upward toward the vaulted and gilded ceiling.
Naked, lying atop the brocade coverlet of the grand canopied bed, the Honorable Simon Clarkson Stanfield rolled over and impatiently stubbed out his cigarette in the heavy crystal ashtray beside his bed. He lifted his keen grey eyes to the windows and gazed intently at the scene beyond them. The timeless and ceaseless navigation of Venetians had never lost its fascination for him.
At this moment, however, the vaporetti, water taxis, and produce-laden gondolas plying their way past the Gritti Palace were not the focus of his attention. Nor were the fairy-tale Byzantine and Baroque palazzi lining the opposite side of the canal, shimmering in the waning golden light. His attention was directed toward a sleek mahogany motorboat that was just now working its way through the traffic. The beautiful Riva seemed to be heading for the Gritti's floating dock.
He swung his long legs over the side of the bed and stood, sucking in the beginnings of an unfortunate gut reflected from far too many angles in the mirrored panels between each of the windows. He'd recently turned fifty, but he worked hard at staying in shape. Too much good wine and pasta, he thought patting his belly. How the hell did these local Romeos stay so thin? He was sliding across the polished parquet floors in his leather slippers, headed for the large open balcony when the telephone jangled.
"Signore, prego," the concierge said, "you asked to be called, subito, the moment la Signorina arrived from the aeroporto. The Marco Polo taxi is coming. Almost to the dock now."
"Grazie mille, Luciano," Stanfield said. "Sì, I can see her. Send her up, per favore."
"Va bene, Signore Stanfield."
Luciano Pirandello, the Gritti's ancient majordomo, was an old and trusted friend, long accustomed to the American's habits and eccentricities. Signore never used the hotel's entrance, for instance. He always came and went through the kitchen, and he always took the service elevator to the same second floor suite. He took most of his meals in his rooms and, save a few late night forays to that American mecca known as Harry's Bar, that's where he stayed.
Now that he was such a well-known personage in Italy, il Signore's visits to Venice had become shorter and less frequent. But Luciano's palm had been graced by even more generous contributions. After all, the great man's privacy and discretion had to be ensured. Not to mention many visiting "friends" who had, over the years, included a great number of the world's most beautiful women, some of them royalty, some of them film stars, many of them inconveniently married to other men.
Shouldering into a long robe of navy silk, Stanfield moved out under the awning of the balcony to watch Francesca disembark. Luciano stood in his starched white jacket at the end of the dock, bowing and scraping, extending his hand to la Signorina as she managed to step deftly ashore without incident despite the choppy water and the bobbing Riva. Sprezzatura, Francesca called it. The art of making the difficult look easy. She always behaved as if she were being watched, and of course she always was.
Not only Stanfield watched from the shadows of his balcony, but also everyone sipping aperitifs or aqua minerale and munching antipasti on the Gritti's floating terrace stared at the famous face and figure of the extravagantly beautiful blonde film star in the yellow linen suit.
Luciano, smiling, offered to take her single bag, a large fire-engine-red Hermès pouch that hung from her shoulder by a strap, but she refused, pushing his hand away abruptly and snapping at him. Odd, Stanfield thought. He'd never seen Francesca snap at anyone, especially Luciano, the soul of beneficent charm. Foul humor? She was six hours late. Hell, six hours of sitting on your backside at Rome Fiumicino Airport would be enough to put anyone in a bad mood.
Stanfield watched the top of Francesca's blond head disappear beneath his balcony balustrade and took a deep breath, inhaling both the scent of damp marble within the room and the smell of springtime marsh that came in off the canal. Soon, his room would be filled with the scent of Chanel Number 19. He had known she would not dare look up and catch his eye and he had not been disappointed. He smiled. He was still smiling, thinking of Francesca's backside, when there came a soft knocking at the heavy wooden door.
"Caro," she said as he pulled it open to admit her. "I'm so sorry, darling. Scusa?"
Stanfield's reply was to gather her up into his arms, inhale her, and waltz her across the floor. There was a champagne bucket full of mostly melted ice, two upside down glasses, and a half-empty bottle of Pol Roger Winston Churchill standing by the window. Putting her down, he plucked a single flute from the bucket and handed it to her, then filled the glass with the foaming amber liquid.
She downed it in one draught and held the glass out for more.
"Thirsty, darling?" Stanfield asked, refilling her glass and pouring one for himself.
"It was, what do you call it, a fucking nightmare."
"Sì, un fottuto disastro," Stanfield said with a smile. "All part of the glamour of the tryst, the illicit liaison, my dear Francesca. The endless obstacles the gods delight in placing between the two venal lovers. Traffic jams, rotten weather, the suspicious spouse, the vagaries of Italian airlines -- what happened to you, anyway? You were invited for lunch."
"Caro, don't be angry with me. It was not my fault. The stupid director, Vittorio, he would not let me leave the set for two hours past the time he promised. And, then it was a vagary with the stupid Alitalia. And then -- "
"Shh," Stanfield said, putting a finger to her infinitely desirable red lips. He pulled a small gilded chair away from the window, sat, and said, "Turn around. Let me look at your backside."
Francesca obeyed and stood quietly with her back to him, sipping her third glass of champagne. The dying rays of light off the canal played with the taut curve of her hips and the cleft of her celebrated buttocks.
"Bella, bella, bella," Stanfield whispered. He emptied the balance of the cold wine into his glass and, without taking his eyes off of the woman, picked up the phone and ordered another bottle.
"Caro?" the woman asked after the click of the receiver in its cradle had punctuated what became a few long moments of silence.
"Tiptoes," he said, and watched the fetching rise of her calf muscles as she giggled and complied. He had taught her the word tiptoes soon after they'd met and it had become one of her favorite words. She flung her blonde hair around, twisting her head and gazing down at him over her shoulder with those enormous brown doe eyes. Eyes which, up on the silver screen, had reduced men the world over into quivering masses of helpless, dumbstruck protoplasm.
"I have to pee," she announced. "Like a racecourse."
"Horse," Stanfield said, "Racehorse." He smiled and nodded his head and Francesca walked across to the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind her.
"Christ," Stanfield said to himself. He got to his feet and walked out onto the balcony and into the gathering twilight. He found himself breathing rapidly and willed his heartbeat to slow. He saw this emotion for exactly what it was. Unfamiliar, yes, but still recognizable.
He might actually be falling in love with this one.
A phrase from his plebe year at Annapolis floated into his mind as he stared at the familiar but still heartbreaking beauty of the Grand Canal at dusk. An expression that the pimply cadet from Alabama had used to describe the path of his alcoholic father's personal ride to ruin.
My daddy, he was in a hot rod to Hell with the top down.
She could bring it all tumbling down, this one could, like one of those devastating Sicilian earthquakes. His thirty-year-old marriage, his hard-fought place on the world's political stage, his --
The Campanile bell tower in the nearby Piazza San Marco tolled seven times before he turned and went to her.
Pale blue moonlight poured through the windows. Francesca feigned sleep as her lover slipped from the bed and went toward the dim yellow light of the bathroom. He left the door slightly ajar and she watched him perform his usual rituals. First he brushed his teeth. Then he ran two military brushes through his silver hair until it swept back in perfect matching waves from his high forehead. She admired his naked back and the muscles bunched at his shoulders as he leaned forward to inspect his teeth in the mirror.
He then pulled the door softly shut. She couldn't see him but she knew precisely what he was doing. He'd be lifting the seat to urinate, then putting it back down. Then he'd take a hand towel and wash himself, down there. His grey trousers, white silk shirt and cashmere blazer were all hanging on the back of the door. Reaching for them, he --
It would all take five minutes, easily. More than enough time to do what she had to do.
She'd deliberately left her shoulder bag on the floor just under her side of the bed, shoving it there with her foot while he was admitting the room service waiter. She rolled over onto her stomach and reached for it, pulling the drawstrings apart. She reached into the bag, slipping two fingers inside a small interior pouch. She found the tiny disc and withdrew it. She then backhanded the heavy bag under the bed again so that he wouldn't step on it when, as was his custom, he bent to kiss her before slipping out for his traditional solo nightcap.
She rolled over to his side of the bed and reached for the alligator billfold on his bedside table. She held it above her face, opened it, and ran her index finger lightly over the gold monogrammed letters S.C.S. Then she carefully slipped the encrypted micro-thin disc into one of the unused pouches on the left side, opposite the credit cards and a thick fold of lire on the right. The thin disc was made of flexible material. The odds of his discovering it were nil. She put the wallet back on the bedside table, exactly as he'd left it, then rolled over onto her back.
A soft shaft of yellow light expanded on the ceiling as the bathroom door was opened and Simon padded quietly around the foot of the bed. Eyes closed, her bosom rising and falling rhythmically, Francesca listened to Stanfield slip his cigarette case, billfold, and some loose change into the pockets of the beautiful black cashmere blazer she'd bought for him in Florence.
He came around to her side of the bed and stood silently for a moment before bending to kiss her forehead.
"Just going over to Harry's for my nightcap, darling. I won't be long, I promise. One and done."
"Ti amo," Francesca whispered sleepily. "This is for you, caro," she said, handing him a small red rosebud she'd plucked from the vase on her bedside table. "For your lapel, così non lo dimenticherete, so you won't forget me."
"Ti amo, too," he said, and, after inserting the stem of the rose into the buttonhole in his lapel and stroking a wing of her hair away from her forehead, he left her side. "Ciao."
"Ritorno-me, caro mio," she said.
A moment later, the bedroom door closed softly behind him and Francesca whispered in the dark. "Arrividerci, caro."
Stanfield took the service elevator down to the ground floor, turned to his right and proceeded down the short hallway that led to the kitchen. Il facchino, the ancient hall porter named Paolo, was dozing with his chair tilted back against the tiled wall. Stanfield placed the tasseled key to his suite on the folded newspaper in the old fellow's lap.
"La chiave, Paolo," he whispered.
"Con piacere. Buona sera, signore," he said as Stanfield passed. He's been through this routine so often he now says it in his sleep, Stanfield thought.
Stepping through the kitchen's service door and out into the empty Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, a smile of pleasure played across Stanfield's features. It was his favorite time of night. Very few people about, the enchanted city now turned many shades of milky blue and white. He started walking across the plaza, the recent memories of Francesca still blooming in his mind like hothouse flowers, the lush scent of her still lingering on his fingers.
Yes. Her ivory skin, whiter in those places where the most delicate articulations of the joints showed through; and her lily fingers which danced upon his body still, to some mystic memory of music.
And now, the small perfection of a quiet stroll over to Harry's for a large whiskey, straight up, an appropriate cigar, the Romeo y Julieta, and some time to reflect on his incredible good fortune. He'd always enjoyed wealth, been born with it. But he'd played his cards right and now he'd reached the point where it was time to see what serious power felt like. Now he knew. A thoroughbred pawing the turf in the starting gate.
And, he's off! called the announcer in his mind, and indeed he was.
He turned right on the Calle del Piovan, then crossed the little bridge over the Rio dell'Albero. It was only a quarter of a mile to Harry's, but the twisting and turning of the narrow streets made it --
What the living hell?
There was a strange, high-pitched chirping sound behind him. He turned and looked over his shoulder and literally could not believe his eyes. Something, he could not imagine what, was flying straight towards him! A tiny red eye blinking, blinking faster as whatever the thing was headed rapidly for him, and he realized that if he just stood there it would, what, hit him? Knock him down? Blow him up? Breaking into an instant sweat, he turned and started running like a madman.
Insanity. No longer out for an evening stroll, Simon Stanfield was now running for his life.
Feeling the surge of adrenaline, he sprinted down the Calle Larga XXII Marza, dodging passersby, flying past the darkened shops, headed for the Piazza San Marco where maybe he might just lose this apparition. A quiet drink at Harry's would just have to wait. He'd shake off this thing somehow, and what a story he'd have to tell Mario when he got there! No one would believe it. Hell, he himself still couldn't believe it.
Stanfield was a man who took care of himself. He was, at fifty, in impeccable physical condition. But this thing matched his every move, never losing nor gaining ground, just hurtling after him turn for turn. He raced over another tiny arched bridge and dodged left into the Campo San Moise. The few people he passed stopped and stared after him, open-mouthed. The chirping, blinking thing streaking after a running man was so absurd it made people shake their heads in bewilderment. It had to be a movie scene. But where were the cameras and crew? Who was the star?
"Aiuto! Aiuto!" the man shouted at them, screaming now for help, calling for the police. "Chiamate una polizia! Subito! Subito!"
There were always a few carabinieri hanging about St. Mark's Square, Stanfield thought feverishly. He'd just have to find one to get this goddamned thing off his back. But what could they do? Shoot it down? He was getting winded now, he realized, looking over his shoulder at that horrible flashing red eye as he raced into the nearly empty piazza. Very few people around, and no one at the distant cafe; tables lining the square paid much attention to the screaming man since they could see no one chasing him. A drunk. A loco.
What the fuck am I going to do? Simon Stanfield thought feverishly. I'm fast running out of gas here. And options. The familiar shapes of the Basilica of St. Mark and the Doge's Palace loomed up before him. Can't run much farther. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. His only hope was the goddamned thing hadn't yet closed the gap. If it were meant to take him out, surely it could have easily done so already.
Maybe this was just a really God-awful nightmare. Or this little flying horror was someone's incredibly elaborate idea of a practical joke. Or maybe he had acquired his own personal smart bomb. He was not only running out of gas, but ideas as well. And then he had a good one.
He angled right and made straight for the tall tower of the Campanile, swung hard right into the piazzetta leading to the canal. Pumping his knees now, Stanfield passed through the columns of San Marco and San Teodoro and kept on going. The thing was getting closer now, louder, and the chirps had solidified into a single keening note. He couldn't see it, but he guessed the red eye wasn't blinking anymore either.
The Grand Canal was maybe twenty yards away.
He might make it.
He put his head down and barreled forward, just like the old days, an enraged bull of a Navy fullback bound for the end zone, no defenders, nothing standing between him and glory. He reached the edge, filled his lungs with air, and dove, flew into the Grand Canal.
He clawed his way down through the cold murky water, and then he stopped, hung there a moment treading water. He opened his eyes and looked up. He couldn't believe it.
The little red-eyed bastard had stopped too.
It was hovering just above him, a glowing red oval contracting and expanding on the undulating surface of the water.
Gotcha, Stanfield thought, relief flooding him along with the realization that he'd finally managed to outwit the goddamn thing. That's when he saw the red eye nose over and break the surface, then streak downward through the shadows towards him, growing larger and larger until it obliterated everything.
Few people actually witnessed the strange death of Simon Clarkson Stanfield, and those who did, did so from too far away to be able to tell exactly what they'd seen.
There were a number of gondoliers ferrying a group of late night revelers from late supper at the Hotel Cipriani back to the Danieli. Singing and laughing, few even heard the muffled explosion in the dark waters just off Venezia's most famous plaza. One alert gondolier, Giovanni Cavalli, not only heard it, but saw the water erupt into a frothy pinkish mushroom about fifty yards from his passing gondola.
But, Giovanni was in the midst of a full-throated rendition of "Santa Lucia" as he poled by; his clients were enraptured, and the gondolier made no move to pole over and take a closer look. Whatever he'd seen had looked so unpleasant as to surely dampen the Americans' generosity of spirit and perhaps seal their pockets as well. Minutes later, as his gondola slid to a stop at the Hotel Danieli's dock, he ended the solo with his famous tremolo obbligato, bowing deeply to the vigorous applause, sweeping his straw hat low before him like a matador.
Early next morning in the Campo San Barnaba, the gondolier Giovanni Cavalli and his mother were inspecting the ripe tomatoes on the vegetable barge moored along the seawall of the plaza. Giovanni noticed the owner, his friend Marco, wrap some newly purchased fagiolini in the front page of today's Il Giornale and hand them to an old woman.
"Scusi," Giovanni said, taking the bundle of green beans from the startled woman and unwrapping it. He dumped her carefully selected vegetables, just weighed and paid for, back on the heaping mound of fagiolini.
"Ma che diavolo vuole?" the woman shrieked, asking him what the devil he wanted as he turned his back on her and spread the front page out over Marco's beautiful vegetables. There was a picture of a very handsome silver-haired man with a huge headline that screamed: Murder In Piazza San Marco!
"Momento, eh?" Giovanni said to the outraged woman, "Scusi, scusi." Ignoring the woman's flailing fists, which felt like small birds crashing blindly against his back, Giovanni devoured every word. There had indeed been a most bizarre murder in the piazza last night. An American had died under the most curious of circumstances. Witnesses said the apparently deranged man dove into the Grand Canal and simply exploded. Police were initially convinced the man had been a terrorist wearing a bomb belt who had somehow run amok. Later, when they learned the identity of the victim, a shockwave rippled throughout Italy and down the long corridors of power in Washington, D.C. The dead man was Simon Clarkson Stanfield.
The recently appointed American Ambassador to Italy.
Copyright © 2004 by Theodore A. Bell