“What are you doing?” She asked. Groggy.
He brooded out the sunlit window.
“Cosa fai?” She repeated, louder, and in his native Italian tongue.
The thin edges of his lips bristled. Green eyes narrowed. His hand—forced against the windowpane ahead of the olive arm into which his taught, naked body leaned—flexed at the fingers.
“Waiting.” The young man’s voice sliced across the room—deep and irritated.
She sharpened. The young woman slid the blankets up the curves of her long, bare body. The rays of morning sun—slicing through the red, tasselled drapes—ran themselves across the white, wrinkled linens and up her golden arms and chest. She squinted past them, over the burgundy leather loveseat and matching high-back chair, and towards the oak door tucked behind where he stood. She swallowed. Looked fretful. Then, from the room’s single exit, traced her gaze back over the green walls lousy with artful, embossed floral patterns until arriving at the side of the bed. Once there, her cream-coloured handbag—abandoned and gaping against a sideways bottle of champagne atop the nearest gold-plated nightstand—looked up at her. She bit her lip. Slid over.
“It’s not there.” He snapped.
She pulled back. The focus of her eyes faded. Vacant and wide they bounced between the tousled strands of auburn draping the front of her long, freckled face.
Four stories down the muffled sounds of Rome wandered into the room. People babbled. Birds sang. Cars rushed.
She bit harder into her lip. Looked to him.
“The ambassador!” She gasped.
She clamoured from the sheets and threw herself through the sheens of the nearest window. She scoured the elbow-like bend of Via Veneto, the road separating the canary-yellow stucco of their Hotel Majestic from the drab, beige stones of the Ministry of Economic Development on the curb opposite. She slapped her hands against the glass. Ripped a furious stare to the naked man lurking two windows to her right.
He bent further towards the glass—curly, chestnut hair and broad, clean-shaven jaw awash in sunlight—hunger lurking in his eyes. He smiled. But not at her. No, this arrogant indulgence was reserved for the black Fiat 1500 pulling around the bend towards the marble-laden ministry doorway.
She turned to the car. Watched the curved lines glimmer beneath the rising light of day. A pair of small American flags—fastened on either side of the hood—ripple in the wind. Tires roll to a gentle stop. Men in blue suits within smile and nod at each other in their polite game of who-leaves-first. The driver thrust out and towards the back door with short, efficient motions. His hand grip the latch.
And the car explode.
Her breath fogged the glass as it rushed from her staggered body. In time, the smell of smoke billowing from the burning wreckage snuck through the seams of the windows and wrapped itself around her neck. But she didn’t turn away. She watched them burn, lost in thought, until the clicking of a gun snapped her back to alertness.
She turned, incredulous and motioning to the bed. “Just to distract me from your little plot? From protecting my ambassador and doing my job?”
He sat in the lounger. Smug. Her small, black gun in one hand. Eyes wicked.
“I can help—” she began, resentful.
“You American agents always say that.” His voice was quiet and fast. The grip of his gun tightened. “You never do.”
“You see,” he started, as if speaking to a child, “two OVRA agents are going to come through that door.” He gestured with the gun. “If you’re breathing, I won’t be.”
She looked to the floor. Back to him. Straightened. “I know where they’re keeping your family.”
His eyes widened. Jaw, flexed. The gun drifted off her for a second, then it was regripped and refocused.
“Last night—the dancing, the wine, the love—was it a test?” He snarled. “How do I know you’re not OVRA—not the secret police?”
“You think Mussolini hires American spies?”
He scathed her with his glare.
“Your family can be in New York by week’s end.” There was only business in her voice. It was as if a briefcase had open and shut before him. A choice pushed across the cherrywood floor.
He sat back. Ground his jaw. He exhaled long and slow, as one does when chewing on a heavy thought.
The metallic doorhandle jiggled. Opened.
Neither of them breathed.
But the gun spoke.
While their ears rang they watched the bodies of two flat-faced Italian men dressed in grey tweed suits tumble through the half-open, bullet-pierced door.
“There’s a safe house.” She rasped, blurting the address. “They’ll ask about the weather—say ‘it’s not like Virginia’.”
He rose. Swiped at the floor for a pastel blue, short-sleeve collared shirt along with a pair of beige, high-waisted slacks. Rushed them on. Then he scoured the nightstand, thrusting a silver cigarette case, holder and square-shaped lighter into his pocket.
She dressed and waited by the door wearing an uncertain face and a navy-blue swing dress with collar cap sleeves.
He approached. Caressed her ensemble with his eyes. Grabbed her elbow.
Stepping over the bleeding corpses, the pair slithered down the short hallway lined with chiffon walls and ranch oak doors. Behind one such doorway, a wrought-iron staircase was reached. Descended. A main-floor door then snuck them into an alley cloaked by the dewy shadow of early morning.
A poppy red Alfa Romeo 6C 1900—with its wide face and slight curves—beckoned with two exposed leather seats.
He rushed her to the passenger side. Opened her door. Led her in. He then whisked himself around and slid into the driver’s chair. Pulled two black driving gloves from the glovebox. Placed the gun on her warm, bare thigh. “They tell me you know how to use this,” he grunted. The gloves were slipped on.
The car rumbled to life.
A man in a grey suit burst from the hotel door. Gun drawn. Murder in his eyes.
The woman threw her herself into the driver’s lap and shot the suited man through the forehead. Squealing tires and the whistling of wind over chrome muffled his collapse. She slid into the supple passenger seat. Smirking. “They were right.”
The driver wrung a hand on the wheel and sent another to the shifter. He threw the round knob backward. The car lurched ahead, surging from the alley onto open road. Without blinking he threw the Alfa left and right down several side streets until Via del Quirinale, where he flattened the gas and wove through the morning rush hour at a dizzying pace.
She gripped the cool door and held her dancing hair. Looked behind them. Released her hair. Readied her gun.
A black Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 seared towards them with its three angry headlamps snarling through the wake of cars between them. The OVRA agent behind the wheel—dressed like the others and looking offended—perched his own weapon over the low, topless windshield.
“They don’t do well with goodbyes.” The driver said, jerking the red car left and due west to the glistening waters of the River Tiber.
The OVRA agent fired his gun—missing wide into the back tire of a frumpy blue Peugeot 201 that promptly skid onto the empty sidewalk.
Her weapon spat its own errant reply.
The red Alfa raced towards a t-shaped intersection lined on the river’s side by a simple, stone boardwalk. The driver flexed his arms, preparing to swing the turn at the last minute, hoping the black car would guess wrong.
But there was another gunshot.
She crashed hard and sloppy into his shoulder.
He lost the wheel.
The red Alfa slipped. Veered right. Caught a curb. The gleaming sportscar spun and flipped. Its passengers spilt violently onto the road to a chorus of squealing tires, far away screams and shattering glass. He rolled to a stop against the boardwalk wall. She flopped lifeless onto her back an arm’s length away—a hole etched into her left chest.
The driver—bleeding and bruised—reached for her.
At that moment the black car screeched to a halt. The OVRA agent emerged. Gun in hand.
The driver brushed the tousled reams of auburn from her vacant eyes. Scowled. And felt the hollowness of failure. The burning burden of having perhaps—by his own opportunistic hand—sentenced those he loved to death.
With a series of haggard barks the OVRA agent scolded the onlookers who had emerged from their cars and homes, then made his way towards the bodies on the road.
The driver rolled away from the agent, fiddling in his pockets.
The OVRA agent said something harsh and urgent.
The driver looked over his shoulder. Cursed. His hands made three, crisp maneuvers on the hidden side of his trunk.
Stopping a stride before the driver, the OVRA agent pointed his gun at the spine of the blue shirt.
The driver lifted one hand. “Basta. Enough.”
The agent eased.
Then the driver hurled himself around and fired a bullet from the silver barrel of his gun.
Rushing to his feet as the OVRA agent splattered against the road, the driver quickly pulled the pieces of his weapon apart—stuffing the cigarette case, holder and square-shaped lighter back into his pocket—before throwing himself towards the purring engine of the black Alfa.
Midday sun carved hot and sharp into the cuts and scrapes on his face and neck. He snuck the black Alfa down yet another sequence of side streets parting the tall, sun-bleached buildings that circle the Piazza di Spagna.
He kept thinking of her. The sweetness of her lips. How she lured him. How he deceived her in turn. And how she died so he could live.
The jostling of the cobblestones jerked him from his reverie. His eyes scrambled through the hordes of smiling tourists lining the sidewalk. He felt the heat of their eyes—the prickling of risk rushing up his limbs.
He led the car down Via dei Condotti. Parked. Got out.
Crossing the road he slunk under the modest awning of Antico Caffe Greco. Through its sunken wood doors. Into the welcoming arms of the scent of fresh pastry and hot espresso—slumping into the nearest empty table. For a while he watched the narrow café bustle gayly—patrons perched on the red cushions of black chairs oblivious to the game of death unfolding at their backs—until a waiter with cropped black hair and an arrogant smile approached. “Buongiorno, welcome. How may I serve you?”
The Italian looked up. Expectant. Uncertain.
“Funny weather.” A throaty American voice grumbled around the waiters back ahead of a man with white hair, one eye and a silver cane throwing himself into the seat opposite.
The Italian scoured his damp, leather-like skin and black eyepatch. He found the purple shadows beneath the single eye deep and long. The blue, pinstriped suit over his pointed shoulders well tailored.
“It’s not like Virginia.” The Italian said.
The waiter marched off with a huff.
“So, you’re Agent Pagliaro, Italian Special Forces.” The lone brown eye studied him while the red lips below saddled his name with a disingenuous Italian accent. “Amber told us everything about you. I was starting think—that was, until you managed to distract her from halting your efforts to incinerate our ambassador—she was about to turn you. Shame she couldn’t make it.”
Pagliaro grimaced. Looked out one of the tall windows. Erupted in cold sweat. Two OVRA agents with searching eyes and his photo wandered through the crowd out front. He squeezed the round, brown table. “Did she mention I’m fighting a war I don’t believe in, for a country I love that’s run by a gang of criminals—all because they stole my family?”
The man with one eye tapped a slow tune onto the golden handle of his cane. “I can no longer guarantee their escape.”
“You complicated it.” The American man said, softly. “I had an ambassador to protect. And you made a very brash exit.” He tilted his head to the window. “I can only imagine how hard the OVRA would look for a defective Italian agent. I mean, you hear things, in our line of work—but you never know what of it is just fabricated nonsense and what of it is horrific fact.”
Pagliaro leaned across the table with strain billowing behind his eyes, the knife of truth wedged in the meat of his heart.
The American went on: “So now the game is: help us find something, first, and we’ll do our best. Or, try your luck on the streets. But decide fast, we don’t know how long—”
“I’ll do it.”