Bewildering Stories

Observation One
Table of Contents
Chapter 8 appears
in issue 126.

Observation One:
Singing of promises ...

by Michael E. Lloyd

Chapter 9: Rome, Italy

part 1

With no arrival delay, the transfer at Madrid went smoothly. Toni even had time to seek out a pocket guide to Rome, complete with street plan. The tired-looking student, moving through on his own into international departures, merited no more than a quick glance from the passport officer. But the student’s close attendant, still exhilarated from her recently completed first solo cross-country flight, could command none of the official’s attention at all.

The second Iberia flight also arrived on time at Rome Fiumicino at eleven-fifteen. After a long wait to clear customs, Toni made his way to the airport station, and soon afterwards he was boarding the train for Centrale Termini. He passed the short journey by studying his street map of Rome, and deciding to aim vaguely towards the city centre and some of the obvious tourist spots he had read about on the plane. And he was now wishing he’d taken up his mother’s repeated offers to expand the small amount of Italian she had taught him as a child ...

Emerging from the front entrance of Termini Station into fine early spring weather, he turned left and made his way along the street to the Piazza dell’Esquilino, pausing briefly to admire the huge magnificence of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. He then crossed the busy Via Cavour and, looking straight along the Via Depretis, he took in the gentle contours of the famous seven hills of Rome, as the long streets extending ahead of him dipped and rose and dipped and rose again, reminding him of the backs of the sea-snakes presaging the sack of Troy ...

Setting off down the first of those streets, he soon came to an unassuming square, the Piazza del Viminale, with a likely looking bar on the corner. This would be perfect for his long anticipated rendezvous. He took off his rucksack, sat down in the warm sunshine, ordered a beer and a small pizza, and waited for Carla to appear.

And a few moments later, she walked round the corner. She was wearing exactly the same clothes as in Bilbao. Toni was surprised ... but at the same time, immensely relieved. And then, having dabbled once in potted psychology, he realised that surprises were the last thing he needed right now. And he understood ...

She smiled, and sat down at the chair which he had unconsciously readied for her. They exchanged a few slightly embarrassed words. That is, Toni felt embarrassed. Then Carla got straight back down to business. Once again, he was automatically resolving all the missing syntax in his mind ...

‘Toni — please show me the paper with the co-ordinates of the Bilbao café.’

He held it up directly ahead of her. She smiled again, then nodded in confirmation that the data had been successfully read and interpreted back on the Mater.

Toni plucked up the courage to speak again.

‘Carla — Quo promised you would explain how you can see and hear and talk ...’

‘Ah, Toni — please be patient. We shall tell you all you need to know, very soon. But right now, we have work to do.’

The arrival of Toni’s pizza conveniently prevented any further argument. Carla waited patiently for him to finish it. But he could see she was very keen to proceed ...

‘I must move away now, Toni. Please wait for five minutes, to give me time to un-make in seclusion and then get you back in my sights — remember, I don’t want to frighten you or the natives, or alert the authorities! Then continue your walk along the hilly streets. I shall be following you. Stop by the first busy pavement café you come to, consult your map, just like the tourist that you are, and discreetly capture two GPS marks. Then just walk on — we don’t want you to be associated with that spot. Stop at the next corner and wait for me to join you later. I will make an appearance at the same café and pretend to place another phone call. Don’t look back, Toni; look anywhere but back. You wouldn’t recognise me anyway. Your Carla is not going to be associated with that spot either!’

She strolled casually away and around the nearest corner. After five minutes, Toni stood up and moved off down the hill. Arriving soon at another major junction, with a large café-restaurant on his right, he stopped, studied his map, and then pulled out his GPS. The screen was blank. Where was the command menu? He pressed every button in turn — nothing! Then he noticed the tiny power switch, and realised he had not turned the device off after copying out the co-ordinates in the taxi. In fact, he hadn’t switched it off once, ever since he had experimented with it at home in the evening ... eighteen hours ago. Flat batteries! How stupid. He must have been so tired last night — and he’d never even thought about it today. His mobile phone was always running down, as well ...

He shuffled uncomfortably on the spot, worrying that people would start to take some notice of him, well aware that Carla would be watching him intently. Then he pulled himself together, made a decision (he was not used to doing that), sat down at the nearest empty table facing the direction from which he had come, planted a huge and unmissable smile on his face, and vigorously waved his arm. He converted the wave into a grand gesture of distant beckoning, then sat back and prayed.

It was a full minute before Carla turned the corner and, smiling sweetly, walked up to his table. But her eyes reflected her feelings ... puzzlement, not annoyance; frustration, but a genuine appreciation that something else had gone wrong ...

He explained.

‘Well, you’ll have to buy more batteries, or another unit,’ said Carla’s limited nouns and verbs; she was trying to come to terms with such an unreliable technology, and failing completely. ‘But we don’t know how long it will take you to sort that out. We’d better try and make contact with Giuseppe first. Because there’s no knowing how long that might take either. And we have to reach him during the day ... you only know his place of work, not his home address or phone number. When you do reach him, you’ll just have to try and delay the meeting as long as possible, to allow us to capture the fixes first ...’

They left the table before the arrival of any waiter. Carla walked alongside Toni, keeping clear of passers-by, as he sought and located a telephone booth — no easy task in the era of the all-pervasive mobile phone. Then, after several attempts at finding a sympathetic operator who could understand his request, first attempted in Spanish, and then in English, for a phone number for the Parliament office buildings, he finally got through to a reception desk which recognised the name Terleone at once; and suddenly, without fully realising it, he was talking to his great-uncle’s personal secretary.

He identified himself again, and made a simple plea to talk to his relative; it was very important, he begged. She must have believed him; only seconds after her request for him to hold the line, she put him straight through.

Terleone. Chi parla?

‘Ah ... hello, sir. Good afternoon, Great-uncle Giuseppe. Pardon me. I am the son of your niece ... Anna. My name is Antonio. And ... sir ... I really need you to help me, if you will ...’

Ma cosa vuoi ...?

So, with an enforced combination of Spanish, some old school Latin, a few words remembered from his mother’s early teaching and a smattering of holiday Italian from a week spent in Viareggio, Toni managed to blurt out to the urbane and rarely-hoodwinked civil servant, who had pretended a complete ignorance of English in response to Toni’s initial efforts, that he was in Rome on vacation, and that he had lost his wallet, and that he was suffering from a nasty upset stomach, and that he really didn’t know what to do, and that his parents, who were themselves away on a touring holiday, had given him their honoured Roman relative’s contact details, “just in case” ...

Don Giuseppe listened to this multilingual tirade with no small irritation, at first, at being disturbed by someone he had never met. He had received plenty of calls from cranks in the past, despite his secretary’s efficiency! But as he took in the crucial points of the garbled message, he too came to accept that the caller really was his great-nephew; and then of course he could not argue. Nor did he want to. Family was special. Family was everything.

‘It’s all right, Antonio. You can relax. I understand completely. And yes, I will of course do all I can to help you.’

The suave arranger was back in full control. And Toni was very relieved to hear the perfectly spoken English language which earlier he had dared not pursue further.

‘Where are you?’ asked Giuseppe. ‘All right, I can be with you in thirty minutes from now. At two-fifteen — understood? We’ll sort something out, for the afternoon at least.’ ... ‘No, I have an important meeting at three o’clock, which I cannot miss. You will need to get a taxi.’  ... ‘Yes, it’s near the Spanish Steps.’

So Toni was forced to agree an immediate rendezvous inside an elegant little café in the Via Frattina, only a short stroll from the place where Giuseppe Terleone was working that day; his office within the Chamber of Deputies in the Palazzo Montecitorio.

‘How will I recognise you, signore?’

Terleone did not hesitate. ‘A yellow rose.’

Toni summarised the challenge to Carla. She seemed to understand, and, as before, appeared resigned to such adversity. She took charge again.

‘You must get some new batteries at once. Test them in the taxi. Take the fix as soon as you reach the café, and copy it down, and keep the sheet of paper in your hand. I will follow you ... and meet you both inside.’

Toni suddenly felt he had experienced more “happenings” in the past thirty hours than in the whole of his previous twenty years. He wasn’t sure he could handle all this action ...

‘Come on, Toni — wake up! Give me three minutes to un-make, then get on with it!’

That was enough to kick him back into life. Embarrassment again, unfortunately, he thought ruefully to himself.

Carla had already walked away. He spotted a tobacconist’s shop on the opposite corner. After the obligatory short wait, he hurried over to it, emptied the batteries onto the counter, put on his most helpless look, and prayed for good luck for the second time in the past half-hour. And they had dozens of the commonplace things. He bought three sets — he was beginning to learn some real-life lessons at last.

He then spent several minutes wandering around the busy road junction, seeking out a taxi in every direction. Finally he spotted one, waved at it furiously, and luckily was able to grab it before anybody else could. He dived into the back seat. ‘Via Frattina, per favore!

The Rome traffic was on his side at that hour of the day. In the short time available, he rapidly installed a new set of batteries, prayed once more, and switched the GPS back on. “Initialising ... Ready”. Perfect! He pressed “Mark” and checked that it was all working just as before. OK. He deleted that mark. It still looked right. He was really getting the hang of this! He was ready again. He would leave the unit switched on for now, but he definitely would remember to turn it off after taking the next fix ...

* * *

The taxi pulled up outside the café only five minutes before the appointed time. Toni peered through the plate glass windows, past the people queuing for the wonderful-looking ice creams. No yellow roses. Holding the door open for a little longer than necessary (he knew that Carla could pass through without his help, but he had been well brought up), he walked in as casually as he could and sat down in the corner chair of the table nearest the back stairs, which afforded him a clear view of the front door and the street outside. He placed his rucksack on the chair next to his, reserving it for Carla’s arrival.

He pulled out his GPS, checked it was all still looking as it should, then pressed the “Mark” button, waited a few seconds, and pressed it a second time. He confirmed to his satisfaction that both fixes had worked correctly, and without wasting a moment, used the marker pen to copy the co-ordinates clearly onto his sheet of paper, and cross-checked them carefully. Then he switched the unit off, then on again, and finally off. Done! This was easy, now! But where was Carla? Giuseppe would be here at any moment ...

Instead, the waiter had appeared.

Ohi ...sì ... una birra, per favore.

As the waiter moved off, a woman in her early fifties — short, rather overweight, and wearing a loud red anorak and beige check trousers — emerged puffing from the top of the stairs to Toni’s left. Clearly relishing this latest, highly convincing manifestation, Carla glanced across to his table. She showed no sign of recognising him, but was very relieved to see the folded sheet of paper ready in his hand.

She moved forward a little, to stand by the wall between the end of the counter and the top of the stairs. Taking out her mobile phone, remembering this time to place it to her ear, and then furtively turning sideways to face the bar staff, with her right hand cupped to her other ear, she pretended once more to be making a call ... but this time talking so quietly that the language she used was discernible by nobody.

On the Mater, the Handler dropped the radimote’s energy capacitor feed level to 50% for less than one second, and its low-magnitude fix transmission was instantly received.

Low-magnitude it may have been, but it was still, by Earth’s normal standards, another immense and unmissable burst of radio energy from a single, very locatable source: unaccredited and, most notably, portable. And none of the agencies who rapidly received the news of this transmission could fail to notice the great similarities with the previous day’s alert ...

Carla the Finder recovered quickly from what was a far less draining experience than that of the previous day. By the time the elegant man wearing a yellow rose in his lapel approached the café door and hovered outside, looking rather ill at ease, she was ready to descend the stairs again and, in the fortunately still-empty toilet lobby, to become Toni’s Carla once more ...

Toni stood up, walked in pretended discomfort to the door, pulled it open, and smiled a welcome to his great-uncle, who was clearly keen to be rescued from this position of unaccustomed limbo. Then he turned and hobbled straight back to the table, with his illustrious relative trailing behind.

The waiter had just put a small glass of beer on the mat at Toni’s place, and with an enthusiastic ‘Benvenuto, signore!’ he helpfully drew back the empty chair opposite, ready for this impressive new arrival. So Terleone sat down facing the rear wall and stairs, rather discomforted by these enforced arrangements (he never liked to have his back to the action), and very surprised to see a beer being delivered to a purportedly upset stomach. He waved the waiter away, and smiled as sympathetically as he could at his unlucky great-nephew.

Taking a deep breath, Toni attempted to strike up a conversation. Terleone at once raised his hands in a calming gesture and attempted a gentle “hushing” sound, readying himself to regain control of the situation. But before he could speak, his eyes moved away from Toni’s face and towards the top of the stairs.

Toni looked to his left. A familiar figure had emerged from the lower floor. At least the face and the figure were reassuringly and delightfully familiar ... but there was no red scarf now, and the crisp, pale blue suit was brand new, and unmistakably Italian. Toni’s mother would have been most impressed with Carla’s taste.

With a curiously disarming smile on her face, she sat down opposite her target, on the chair from which Toni had now removed his rucksack.

And Terleone was indeed immediately and utterly disarmed. He even started to hum a little tune. But he still retained some grasp of the situation as he had previously understood it.

‘You didn’t tell me there was somebody with you ...’ he complained meekly to his great-nephew, his eyes however fixed firmly on Carla’s.

Toni began, in his very best English, to introduce Carla as his travelling companion, and to explain that she had been downstairs because she too was suffering from the same stomach bug as he was. But Carla was growing impatient with the distraction that Toni was unwittingly creating. She was keen to involve Giuseppe more fully than she had so far managed to, so that they could all move off quickly to somewhere much more secluded.

Her hopes of a smooth and straightforward continuation of her latest seduction were, however, to be dashed for a second time. The police forces of Rome are large in number, and are always ready and waiting for action, especially in the city centre. And while the duties of the Carabinieri, and the Polizia Municipale, and the Special Branch are all officially well-demarcated, there is nothing like a top priority call to bring out the spirit of competition in each of them.

No fewer than five cars and vans, one of them unmarked save for a hastily-positioned blue lamp, converged noisily on Via Frattina within four minutes of Carla’s transmission, and only two minutes after receiving the broadcast alert. Even the driver of a passing Prison Police car toyed briefly with the idea of joining the party, but resisted the temptation admirably.

The approaching sirens gave Carla the few seconds’ warning she needed. She had heard these sounds before. Grasping her stomach and grimacing dramatically to indicate a sudden return of her virtual gastro-enteritis, she broke off her involvement of Giuseppe in mid-flow, and fled back down the stairs. Relieved to find there was still nobody around in the lobby outside the toilets, she un-made in an instant, then moved rapidly back up the stairs and began another unplanned observation ...

Carabinieri and city police barred the café entrance, and two special branch officers entered and ordered everybody to sit still and quiet. But instead, everybody jumped up and started protesting loudly.

Don Giuseppe Marco Terleone, in his immaculate suit and with a golden cashmere overcoat draped across his broad shoulders despite the heat of the afternoon, chose merely to look round and observe these events in stony silence. He then calmly turned back to Toni.

‘Do you have a mobile phone, my boy?’ ... ‘Good — then your friend can meet up with you later.’

He rose and walked across to the two officers, the jostle of bodies seeming to part like the waves before him. The interrogation of the barman was under way. Terleone touched the more senior-looking officer lightly on the shoulder and spoke a few quiet words, briefly turning at one point to indicate Toni.

Within seconds, the two of them were escorted down the back stairs to the staff entrance. The officer opened the door just a few inches and peeked out. No uniforms deployed there yet! Not very good, he thought, but very fortunate. Terleone and the boy were allowed to leave.

Carla, not needing to employ the same discretion, simply descended the stairs once more and made her own exit through the wall beside the staff door, again obliged to take up an unplanned and unseen close pursuit of her latest quarry.

The other officer, meanwhile, had hit the jackpot with the barman (‘Yes, red jacket ... mobile phone ... back down the stairs ...’). The inspector got the shouted message as he hurried back up. Down he went again. Nobody there. He ordered his sergeant to demand an immediate city-wide hunt for the woman in the red jacket. She too must have simply strolled out of the back door. She had nearly ten minutes on them. A very cool customer; she was not going to be easy to catch ...

To be continued ...

Copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Lloyd
Lyrics credits and copyrights

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