How did our two intrepid travellers find themselves standing in the dark on a twisty Corsican road – in their pyjamas?
Well …… two weeks earlier I had emerged from the steps from the metro station into the Piazza del Duomo, only just aware of the looming bulk of the largest gothic cathedral in Europe. I was early, deliberately so, as I was anxious to be on time and needed a ‘little sit’ just to calm and prepare myself. I found a place on the step of the fountain, squashed in amongst the tourists, all looking at the turrets and intricacies of the massive facade facing us across the square.
In different circumstances I would have thought about snot drizzle sandcastles on the beach, but my eyes went immediately to the left, to the side of the square and up to the balcony of BAR 12. I checked my watch, still 10 minutes to go. I felt in my almost empty pockets (I carried no form of identification) and there, alongside some euro notes and the metro ticket was the stick. I checked my socks and felt the other stick. All good except my heart was racing and I needed to breath slowly and deeply – I had to remain calm!
Then, with 5 minutes to go, I stood and walked slowly over to the door at street level that would give me access to the bar. Halfway across, surrounded by pigeons, I stopped – there was a door man! I had not expected that. Worrying that my deliberately casual ‘tourist attire’ would now cause a bit of a problem I approached him, a large man in a black coat.
‘Hello sir,’ he responded, predictably in English.
‘Can I go up to the bar? ……. per favore .’
‘No, it is full’
‘No? ……. but I’ve arranged to meet someone.’
‘Who are you meeting?’
‘Um …. a friend ….. I don’t know his prop …. er, I mean his full name, only his first name – Luigi.’
He smiled ‘Mr Luigi.’
‘Oh …yes … of course … Mr Luigi.’
‘Would you like me to call up and ask?’
‘Yes please,’ I began to breath more easily, but I could feel sweat trickling down my back.
He smiled again, but did nothing. After a short pause he sighed, ‘Would you like me to call up?’
I frowned, confused, but nodded vigorously.
He sighed again, ‘I am a doorman, I don’t get good money.’
‘Oh …. yes ….. of course’ and I fumbled in my pocket, pulled out the stick first and dropped it on the ground, ‘Sorry’. I retrieved the stick and then produced a e20 note, which he took.
‘Who shall I say is asking for him?’
I felt on safer ground here, I had worked out it would be better not to use my proper name and had so determined to weave the password into any response to such enquiries.
‘Oh I’m just one of the vanditos.’
He raised an eyebrow but spoke into the mic clipped to the lapel of his coat, ‘A Mr. Vandito asking to see Mr. Luigi.’
There was a pause, then a brief conversation in Italian, before he turned back to me. ‘Through the door, take the lift to the top floor. Someone will be waiting for you.’
‘Thank you …. Grazie.’
The lift was old and slow so I had time to recheck my pockets …. and my sock, before the doors opened and I was met by a waiter, who checked that I was indeed Mr. Vandito (I was beginning to regret what I had foolishly seen as rather a clever idea) before leading me through the bar area and out onto the open balcony. In the corner two men, both wearing very sharp blue Italian suits, stood to meet me and shake my hand.
‘Welcome to Milan, I am Luigi, please sit down. This is Leonardo, my partner. He has brought his laptop.’
We sat and a waiter arrived. Luigi ordered three Campari negronis.
‘Do you have the information?’
I nodded and, with a bit of fumbling, produced the stick from my pocket. Leonardo took it and plugged it into the lap top.
The drinks arrived and I took a sip. Warning bells began to ring – it was very strong and I needed to keep a clear head.
‘But lots of it,’ Leonardo paused whilst he scrolled up and down, ‘lots of the figures …. are redacted!’
Luigi’s smile faded and I interjected quickly. ‘Of course … this is just to give you an idea of what’s on offer,’
Leonardo continued to scan the documents, ‘They’re what we want …. But we must have the figures.’
‘Of course…… do you have the money?’
Luigi nodded towards a medium sized hold-all on the floor under the table. ‘Do you have the full documents? There’s e400,000 in the bag.’
‘e400,000 ?’ I stuttered, ‘we agreed one million.’
‘We haven’t agreed anything yet.’
‘But they’ll kill me if I only come back with 400!’ I tried to sound panicky, which wasn’t that difficult, but inside I was thinking wow! e400K, let’s just do the exchange and I can get out of here!
‘If we are to do business then we have to build up trust. If what you give us is useful we may come back for more and we can negotiate afresh, your hand will be stronger then’.
‘OK …..’ I tried to sound doubtful, as though I’m still not convinced this was going to work…….. ‘Yes I have the full documents ….. un-redacted, of course.’
The mood lifted and I took a rather too large gulp of my negroni and spluttered.
Luigi laughed, ‘It’s not that difficult Mr Vanditos. You and Leonardo will go and check that everything is in order.’
Leonardo picked up the holdall and led me out through the back of the bar and down a corridor. He ushered me into a small room furnished with a desk and a couple of small chairs. There were no windows.
‘Please excuse me, I must just check you over, please raise your arms.’
I did as I was told and he ran his hands lightly over my arms, back and legs and then slowly over my pockets. He frowned, ‘where is the other stick?’
I produced the stick from my sock and handed it to him, saying in what I hoped was a jokey manner, ‘Shouldn’t I frisk you too?’
‘No need,’ he replied, and poker faced pulled out a hand gun from the waistband at the back of his trousers underneath his jacket and placed it on the desk next to his lap top. He sat to insert the stick and then over his shoulder said ‘check the bag.’
I sat in one of the chairs and opened the hold-all. It was stuffed with bundles of notes – just like in the gangster films. I took a few bundles out and just stared at them, wondering how I was supposed to ‘check them.’ Then I remembered the films and began to pull out a bundle at a time, flicking through each one to check there were no paper fillers. A pile grew around my feet as I worked through, and then discarded each one onto the floor. They were made up of used e100 notes, 50 to a bundle (I counted through three randomly selected bundles).
I heard Leonardo cough and looked round expecting an accusing stare, but he was still hunched over his lap top with his back to me. As long as he doesn’t check any of the detailed calculations I thought – just stick to the headline numbers please.
I returned to ‘my’ or ‘nearly my’ pile and sorted them into small stacks of ten to find there were 10 stacks. I frowned and rechecked the stacks – but I was right ….
‘This is OK ….. I think’ Leonardo was shutting the lid of his lap top and had turned to me. ‘Is the money OK?’
I hesitated, taking into account Luigi’s little missive on building trust and the gun still in plain view on the desk. ‘It’s all there ….. but there’s 500,000 not 4.’
‘What? You want me to take some back?’
‘No, well ….. I just thought I ought to say.’
Leonardo stepped over to me and stooping stuffed the bundles back into the hold-all. ‘Come on you need to go,’ then seeing my puzzlement continued, ‘see it as a goodwill gesture, Mr Luigi likes you ….. and that is what we were going to pay anyway.’
Then he picked up the gun from the desk, handed me the hold-all and guided me quickly out of the room and down a back staircase before opening a fire door and gently propelling me outside. I turned to say something (I have no idea what) but the door was already closing.
I was in a service area, but there, in front of me, was access to a side street from the square. I wasted no time and was soon sitting again with my back to the fountain with the tourists – but clutching a bag with e500,000 in it! I couldn’t help grinning, it had worked!
I sat for a while just to allow myself to calm down and then realised the time – I had to get a move on! I walked over to one of a number of raised flower beds and, as unobtrusively as I could, felt for and then found the key I had hidden under a plant in one corner the day before. Armed with this I entered the ticket office for the Cathedral and ignoring the lengthy queues went straight to the luggage lockers, from which I retrieved a large rucksack. Next stop was the toilets where I transferred the bundles of notes into the rucksack (noting that it was a good job I hadn’t been given the e1million requested!) before locking the empty hold-all back into the locker.
I walked quickly across the square and down the steps to the underground station and onto the platform for west bound trains. I was relieved to see my partner standing near the Nutella advert as agreed holding a similar rucksack to mine.
The platform was reassuringly busy and we managed to stand close enough to each other without any glance of recognition so that we could board the next train through the same doors. Once inside it was the work of a moment, squashed together as we were to exchange rucksacks. At the next stop she had been able to move further inside the carriage and into a seat. I remained standing in the press by the doors and exited the train two stops later.
As I left the station and started to look for a bar in which to waste an hour or two I began to smile. I had a rail ticket for Livorno in the rucksack and she had a ferry ticket in the van – and the spondula! What could possibly ………