Sometime in the middle of March--the date could never be reliably established--he vanished. Even Monsieur Laval could not be certain of the departure date, because he was informed after the fact by a woman in Paris who claimed to be the gentleman's personal assistant. Though two weeks remained on the lease, the handsome tenant did not embarrass himself, or Monsieur Laval, by asking for a refund. Later that spring, when Monsieur Laval visited the villa, he was surprised to discover, in a crystal bowl on the dining room sideboard, a brief thank-you note, typewritten, along with a hundred euros to pay for broken wineglasses. A thorough search of the villa's stemware collection, however, revealed nothing was missing. When Monsieur Laval tried to call Jean-Luc's girl in Paris to return the money, he found that her telephone line had been disconnected.
ON THE FRINGES of the Borghese gardens there are elegant boulevards and quiet leafy side streets that bear little resemblance to the scruffy, tourist-trodden thoroughfares of the city center. They are avenues of diplomacy and money, where traffic moves at a nearly reasonable speed and where the blare of car horns sounds like a rebellion in distant lands. One such street is a cul-de-sac. It falls away at a gentle pitch and bends to the right. For many hours each day, it is in shadow, a consequence of the towering stone pine and eucalyptus that loom over the villas. The narrow sidewalk is broken by tree roots and perpetually covered by pine needles and dead leaves. At the end of the street is a diplomatic compound, more heavily fortified than most in Rome.
Survivors and witnesses would recall the perfection of that late-winter morning: bright and clear, cold enough in the shadows to bring on a shiver, warm enough in the sun to unbutton a wool coat and dream of an alfresco lunch. The fact it was also a Friday served only to heighten the leisurely atmosphere. In diplomatic Rome, it was a morning to dawdle over a cappuccino and cornetto, to take stock of one's circumstances and ponder one's mortality. Procrastination was the order of the day. Many mundane meetings were canceled. Much routine paperwork was put off till Monday.
On the little cul-de-sac near the Borghese gardens there were no outward signs of the catastrophe to come. The Italian police and security agents guarding the perimeter fortifications chatted lazily in the patches of brilliant sunshine. Like most diplomatic missions in Rome, it officially contained two embassies, one dealing with the Italian government, the second with the Vatican. Both embassies opened for business at their appointed times. Both ambassadors were in their offices.
At ten-fifteen a tubby Jesuit waddled down the hill, a leather satchel in his hand. Inside was a diplomatic démarche from the Vatican Secretariat of State, condemning the Israeli army's recent incursion into Bethlehem. The courier deposited the document with an embassy clerk and puffed his way back up the hill. Afterward, the text would be made public, and its sharp language would prove a temporary embarrassment to the men of the Vatican. The courier's timing would prove providential. Had he arrived five minutes later, he would have been vaporized, along with the original text of the démarche.
Not so fortunate were the members of an Italian television crew who had come to interview the ambassador on the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Or the delegation of local Jewish crusaders who had come to secure the ambassador's public condemnation of a neo-Nazi conference scheduled for the following week in Verona. Or the Italian couple, sickened by the new rise of European anti-Semitism, who were about to inquire about the possibility of emigrating to Israel. Fourteen in all, they were standing in a tight cluster at the business entrance, waiting to be body-searched by the embassy's short-haired security toughs, when the white freight truck made a right turn into the cul-de-sac and began its death run toward the compound.
From Prince of Fire by Daniel Silva. Copyright notice Daniel Silva 2005, all rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Putnam Publishing.
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