Ultima, page 12
‘You can buy some in Palermo.’
‘How far is it?’
‘About three hours, round the coast. They’re sending someone to meet us.’
‘You got your gun?’
He whipped round to face me from the rail, sheltering his eyes against the slicing wind.
‘I just thought – you know, venturing into enemy territory.’
I was only half teasing. All the books I had studied on organised crime in Italy divided the clans into three primary groups: the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta. At one point or another in the last thirty years, each had been at war with the other. I had read about the murdered public officials, the mass trials, the Kalashnikov shoot-outs. But then those were the kind of details that sold books. Da Silva was a public official, and he stood for a different kind of symbiosis. Ultimately, it seemed that the state had no real interest in crushing the Mafia, because the Mafia was already part of the state; the politicians were as scared of the pentiti – the Mafia informers – as their bosses were. If you slash open a shark’s belly it will feed on its own innards, but it will keep on swimming.
‘Were you here a few years ago, then? The Greek case?’
The anti-Mafia squads were made up of police divisions from all over Italy, including several units from the Guardia di Finanza in Rome. Da Silva had worked on an operation involving fake Greek antiquities being used for money laundering. It had never been solved, in large part because the café where most of the team had been having their breakfast had been blown to pieces one morning.
‘Yes, I was here.’
‘But not in the bar that morning? Lucky.’
‘I was having a cigarette outside when it happened.’
‘And there was me thinking that smoking damages your health.’
Da Silva gripped the rail until his knuckles went white.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to be flippant. They were your colleagues, weren’t they? The men who were murdered.’
For a second I thought that he was going to slap me, but he turned and stalked as best he could to the other side of the pitching deck, where he remained for the last twenty minutes of our voyage.
The suburbs of Palermo looked even more wretched than I’d imagined under the deluge of mud – coloured rain that had accompanied us from Messina. Everywhere that wasn’t motorway seemed to be contorted, squalid tower block or lightless ruin. The old city was meant to be very beautiful, but it was hard to picture. Why does Italy’s ugliness seem so perverse? It wasn’t that Palermo was much worse than, say, Birmingham, but it had no business looking like Birmingham. Perhaps the dissonance comes from the contrast with Italy’s abundant, careless loveliness, the sense that there is so much beauty to spare that it can be despoiled and wasted.
I was carrying a set of photos Li and I had collated on his laptop, a melange of Woman with a Fan and And the Gold of Their Bodies that gave an idea of what the eventual Gauguin would look like. I would be visiting the bank’s archive of holdings alone the next day, where I would in theory see the picture for the first time among the other lots Gentileschi intended to purchase. In the boot of the car was a pre-wrapped plywood panel the same size as the miro wood we had taken from Tangier, to be transported to the archive that evening. I would then sign for it and leave with it, after which a chain of emails between me and the bank would report on my progress with the ‘research’. Which was where the tomato sauce came in.
I’d found a restorer in Reggio to whom I could take Li’s picture to have the varnish stripped, a process I would report on to the bank. The relative proximity of the two cities, Reggio and Palermo, would add another element of plausibility to the provenances. Gentileschi was officially still based in Venice, where it might have seemed natural for me to take the picture, but if it really was a Gauguin then the bank might be reluctant to have it travel such a distance. Security, insurance, possible damage in transit. Maybe a guard from the bank to witness the cleaning process? That would be a nice touch. Given that the picture had supposedly spent thirty years in a kitchen, traces of tomato sauce on the varnish would add another small, essential detail.
Our meeting with the bank’s representative at the Grand Hotel et des Palmes was set for seven, in a two-bedroomed suite I had booked under Gentileschi’s name. Da Silva had set it up, as I had requested, with the same mysterious smoothness with which he had magicked away the remains of Alvin Spencer. He had shown me a news item a few days before on his phone, a couple of lines from the international edition of the New York Times. Italian police had identified the remains of a corpse found in an underground car park in Trieste as Alvin Spencer, a twenty-three-year-old American who had been reported missing by his family the previous summer. The death was not being treated as suspicious, as Spencer had apparently become a heavy drug user during his period in Europe and post-mortem evidence suggested an overdose. The body had been released to his family for burial. All nice and tidy.
I still had no idea how da Silva’s double life worked, who he reported to, who gave him instructions. Raznatovic was a colleague, of sorts, but not a boss. Given that notoriety in organised crime is conventionally in inverse proportion to power, I didn’t imagine da Silva saluting some diamond-ringed comedian in a room full of white fur rugs, but nor could I see him checking in with a smelly old peasant, which was what the Sicilian bosses turned out to be on the rare occasions that one was arrested. Probably a dentist or a mid-level lawyer in a bland air-conditioned office in Rome. I’d never know.
Dottore di Matteo was shown in at seven on the dot, which was more than could be said for the tea I’d ordered. We made awkward small talk while da Silva cursed down the service phone in his bedroom, and more of it while a blond-haired young waiter rattled it in on an enormous silver trolley. We were presented with three chipped cups, a pot of lukewarm water and a plastic box containing transparent sachets of tea. No milk. Only once the squeaking trolley had departed down the corridor could we get down to business. Di Matteo was a slight man in a tan suit, who ceremoniously presented me with a card with his title ‘Director of Material Assets’. I thought that was quite good.
Wordlessly, di Matteo slid an A4 sheet of paper across our depressing tea table. I read over a set of instructions explained as ‘essential preliminaries’ to our conversation. The picture was to be referred to as ‘the object’. I was not to speak the name of the artist. I was to refer to the backstory of the mortgage as though it were an actual event at all times. I was not to address the dottore directly by name. Courteously, the instructions were also printed in English. I went along with it – at least it could be practice for the tale I was going to have to give at the House – until I reached the last item on the list, which stated that Gentileschi would receive a brokerage fee of ten per cent on any price reached by the object over and above the reserve as stated in the catalogue of the institution which sold it. That wasn’t what I’d agreed with Raznatovic. The bank was a cover, nothing more. It would just have seemed too unlikely for the picture to belong to me, not to mention if it reached the price I’d hoped, the figure would make me far too conspicuous. I shook my head. Whoever was bugging this conversation was having a dull night of it. I took out my Mont Blanc and wrote ‘100% of extra-reserve price to Gentileschi, as agreed’. Di Matteo shook his head. Fuck, were we going to conduct this entire negotiation in pantomime?
‘More tea?’ I asked, to break the silence.
I gestured to da Silva to follow me into my bedroom. I spoke, or rather hissed, in English.
‘I’m not having this bollocks. Did you cook it up with him? Ten per cent? You can piss off, the pair of you. Or are you planning to split the cash with our Serbian friend?’
‘Calm down. It’s just, there are ways of doing things. Umm . . . conventions.’
‘Like, screw the woman? That convention? You heard me in Albania. Fift
‘Judith, you know what . . . what our Serbian friend said.’
‘Yes. He’ll kill you if you don’t pay him.’
‘So call the Corriere and tell them to hold the front page.’
‘This is not to do with me – or the . . . gentleman we met in Durres. It’s to do with them. What they expect from us.’
I held up my hands. ‘Us. Them. I don’t know who the fuck any of you are anyway. Your mess, you sort it. Or make Franci a widow. Whatever.’
He went to the window, struggled with the double louvres and let in a gust of January air as he lit up. Maybe he thought the Befana was going to fly in on her broomstick and give him the answer. The Befana is a witch-like character who brings Italian children presents on the Feast of Kings. Naughty ones get a lump of coal, though the coal is really made of delicious black-dyed sugar. I was fond of the Befana. And then I realised something. Da Silva was ignorant of what a Gauguin could actually be worth.
‘You silly fuck. You have no idea, do you? Wait, give this to the old man.’
I took a sheet from the notepad by the service phone and scribbled ‘Any sale price exceeding one hundred and fifty million pounds sterling to be paid exclusively to Gentileschi. Ten per cent of any remainder on the price exceeding the stated reserve fee but less than one hundred and fifty million pounds sterling to be received as brokerage by Gentileschi.’
His eyes widened when he saw the figures, but he carried the paper through. After that, the dottore became quite cordial.
‘Do you want to order some food?’ da Silva asked an hour later when, after a great many ‘grazies’, di Matteo had finally left with the dummy panel.
‘I doubt I’ll live long enough for it to arrive.’ My appointment the next day was not until noon. Palermo isn’t an early town. ‘Do you know what I feel like? Penne alla Norma. And lots of red wine.’
‘Done. There’s a place near the Arsenale. We can walk if you’re not too cold.’
We skirted the Borgo Vecchio and made our way towards the seafront, leaning into the wind. A hook-nosed Befana was picked out in fairy lights over the street, her broomstick trailing a banner for the Esselunga supermarket chain. Da Silva pointed up to the left with his stupid walking stick.
‘That’s the Ucciardone up there.’
The old prison, built when the Bourbons ruled Sicily, a part of which was notoriously reserved for ‘men of honour’. It’s where the gangster films get their ideas from – deliveries of champagne to the cellblocks, bosses holding court in luxuriously furnished cells. There was probably a gift shop nowadays, selling homemade tomato sauce, light on the sliced garlic.
‘Have you been inside?’
‘Often. Section Seven.’
Seven was the part of the prison reserved for the bosses.
‘Police business, then?’
‘Was I police business?’
‘Not any more.’ There was something in his voice that sounded like regret.
‘Would you really have done it? On the beach? Before Raznatovic’s eager mate turned up?’
Huddled together against the rain under the coloured blur of the lights, I felt that this conversation was something intimate, one that we had both been having, or trying to have for quite some time, without ever finding the words.
‘No. Maybe no. You weren’t going to be any use to me dead.’
‘Thanks.’ Nothing I hadn’t known already.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .’
He twisted to look at me, both our faces wet, the few inches of air between our mouths suddenly poignant. I could have leaned forward, but – what was I thinking? I’d already made arrangements for the evening. And then a crowd of kids ran past, heavy coats pulled on over ragged black witch costumes and crooked pointed hats. Da Silva said good evening to the patient father, huddled under an umbrella, and we walked on.
I took a hot bath after dinner and poured out a couple more glasses of red wine. Beyond two closed doors, I faintly heard da Silva’s shower running, picturing him naked, the water streaming down his thighs, the musk of his armpits as he soaped them. I put my right middle finger between the lips of my cunt, brought it glistening to my mouth. Eleven p.m. There was a discreet tap from outside, the corridor side. I opened it and put the finger to my lips again. ‘Shhh.’ The blond waiter who’d brought the tea trolley came in, his white uniform jacket folded over his arm. He looked a bit nervous.
‘Judith?’ called da Silva through the locked door to the sitting room. ‘Everything OK?’
We were going to have to be very quiet.
‘Fine. It’s nothing. Just room service.’
Morning in Palermo was all the colours of the baroque, pinks and golds and ivories and periwinkle blues. Even the red Ultra football supporters’ graffiti dripping down the palazzi at the marketplace seemed tinged with the delicacy of a Caracci dawn. Piazza San Domenico was already busy at seven a.m. I’d bounced out of my bed of sin at six to run and worked out where the market was from the noise. I picked up three kilos of fresh tomatoes, a jar of paste and a bottle with a string-tied cork full of tiny fruits, almost berries, under oil. Maybe Salvatore would have a good recipe. The fish stalls reminded me of the Rialto in Venice – jaunty mackerel and buckets of chattering crabs, heaps of strange whorled shellfish, crates of alien deep-sea plunder I couldn’t name. I picked up two cappuccini in takeaway cups and a pair of fat brioches oozing vanilla custard.
Da Silva was still under the blankets. He reached out to check the time on his phone and groaned.
‘Why have you woken me up?’
‘Because it’s going to be a beautiful day! Here, I got these. You don’t want to get involved with the buffet downstairs. It’s sunny out. Can I come in?’ I drew the heavy velveteen drapes. Da Silva cowered beneath the bedclothes like a startled vampire.
‘What’s got into you?’
I thought it was best not to answer that.
‘Do you fancy a walk before I have to be at the bank?’ I wiped custard off my chin.
‘I have paperwork to do.’
‘It’ll wait, surely? Please?’ I’d never thought I’d catch myself soliciting da Silva’s company, but being away from the farmhouse made me feel giddy, as though we were sagging off school.
‘OK, then.’ He gave me the first genuine smile I thought I had seen on his face, a broad flash of square white teeth that hit me just about where last night’s waiter had done.
‘I’ll just grab a shower.’
Da Silva tapped on my bathroom door just as I was elegantly wrestling off my sports bra.
‘I’m sorry, I just need to send an email, but my laptop won’t switch on – I’ll have to take it downstairs. Sorry.’
‘Mine’s just there – wait a second.’ I threw on a robe, scuttled across my bedroom and tapped in my password.
‘Are you sure?’
‘It’s no problem. Believe me, there’s nothing for you to find. Go ahead, I’ll be with you in a minute.’
The Società Mutuale’s archive was held, not in the grand Spanish-era main premises of the bank, but in the basement of a six-storey seventies block two streets away. After a bright, blowy walk along the Conca d’Oro, da Silva accompanied me as far as the street corner where Dottore di Matteo was waiting. He signed me in and we took a lift three floors down before handing our IDs to a guard who wrestled with a combination-wheel on a reinforced steel door to admit us. The pictures – perhaps a hundred in total – were wrapped in thick cotton covers, arranged in racks according to period, then alphabetically by artist. There was also a large ‘unknown’ section in which I’d instructed di Matteo to leave the panel the previous evening. The
‘May I see that, please?’
It was a Kees van Dongen, a luscious scene from a Paris cabaret. A narrow woman in an absinthe-coloured evening dress, with a swollen red mouth and huge tubercular eyes framed in the lurid gold leaf of a cramped proscenium. I looked at that one for a long time.
‘Well, Dottore. Are we ready to find the Gauguin?’
He glared at me.
‘Sorry. Well, I’ll just remove this very interesting panel here.’ I sorted through a selection of nasty fifties acrylic abstracts until I got to the dummy and hauled it out. ‘I’ll need your authorisation to research it, as we said.’
He handed me a stamped paper with the flourishing crest of the bank.
‘And what about this one? If I wanted to buy it?’
‘A receipt, as before?
‘No, I mean really buy it. How much?’
‘Let me see. A million.’
It was ridiculously cheap. Van Dongens were selling at between five and seven in London. And I could afford it, though it would take about a third of all the money I still had. Silly, really. But I wanted it. There was something about the woman’s face, brassy and pleading at the same time, the eyes so vivid in their chalky surround of powder. The whimsicality of Chagall and the brutal clarity of Lautrec.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes