A golden sun, a blue sky. A perfect summer day.
Wasted here of course.
This wasn’t tourist Rome; it had no ancient glories like the Forum or the Coliseum, no wedding-cake grandeur like the Victor Emmanuel Monument, no film-fuelled romance like the Trevi fountain.
These towers of glass, concrete and steel weren’t places of pilgrimage like St Peter’s, unless, of course, you worshipped money.
This was where the business of Rome got done, and it could have been Canary Wharf, La Défense or Wall Street, except for the Roman sun bouncing off the concrete and glass.
A man was standing on the pavement, shading his eyes as he looked up.
He was middle-aged, of medium height, with a lived-in face and short grizzled hair. His casual summer clothes were well cared for and good quality, but he still managed to achieve a distinctly crumpled look. He carried no camera, map or guide book, so he wasn’t a stray tourist, but nor did he look like someone who belonged in any of these offices.
But there he was, looking.
Jimmy Costello lowered his hand. The tall office block was like all the others and nothing, he thought, could look less like the home of a venerable institute of learning founded in the seventeenth century. But the top two floors of the block he was looking at was home to the small staff of the Collegio Principe. It was here that they lived and worked and had their being.
The Collegio Principe’s life began as a bequest in the will of Cesare Borgia and had originally been housed in a minor Palazzo close to the Vatican. In those days it was a semi-religious institution staffed by Dominicans and Franciscans. Cesare had endowed the Collegio with farmland on the outskirts of Rome which would provide the income to support the friars and fund their work. That ancient farmland now was the site of this business suburb, home to bankers, brokers and financial wheeler-dealers of all types and sizes. And on the top of one of its towers of commerce were the offices of that one, small, ancient institute of learning and research.
The old Palazzo close to the Vatican still existed, now an exclusive hotel catering to the rich and discerning, but its lease remained the property of the Collegio and the annual rental reflected its enviable position. Whatever problems beset the Collegio’s staff, lack of money was not one of them. The envy of many other academic institutions, they didn’t have to worry about funding while they carried out their founder’s wishes, to study the relationship between religion, politics and power.
Jimmy smiled to himself as he set off towards the entrance. The place suited Professor McBride, because what you saw with her was definitely not what you got either. He crossed the road, left the summer heat and went into the cool, air-conditioned reception.
‘James Costello to see Professor McBride, Collegio Principe.’
The pretty girl behind the desk checked a screen then picked up a phone.
‘Signor Costello to see you, Professore.’ She put the phone down and made a visitor’s badge for him while he signed in. Jimmy took the badge, slipped the cord over his head and put the plastic identification into his shirt pocket. The pretty girl smiled at him. ‘Please go up. You know the way?’
Jimmy nodded. He knew the way.
He went to the lift and pressed the button for the top floor where he got out and walked along the empty, carpeted corridor until he came to a door. He stopped and knocked.
The voice was American.
The office was oddly furnished, a heavy, old-fashioned darkwood desk with brass-handled drawers down either side and an ink-stained, inlaid-leather top dominated the centre. Along one wall was a set of ultra-modern cabinets which might have contained anything from drinks to state secrets. On one wall hung a large abstract painting in a severe, chrome frame. On the opposite wall hung a small, dark oil-painting in an ornate gold frame. The carpet was pale blue and might to have been chosen to draw into the office the view from the big window, which looked south towards the distant, blue hills of Frascati. No phone, no computer, no paperwork, and no books: there was nothing to show that anything happened in this room. But the woman sitting behind the desk looked strangely at home there.
‘Please sit down.’
She was like she always was, smart in a black office skirt and ice-white shirt that emphasized the blackness of her skin. Jimmy sat down.
‘It is a small thing but it may be important. I want you to go to Santander in Spain and talk to an Englishman who lives there, a Mr Arthur Jarvis. You are to see if you think there is any truth in the information he passed on to Fr Perez, a local retired priest.’
She stopped. Jimmy waited. Nothing more came.
‘And how am I supposed to do that?’
‘By questioning him.’
‘I know, the information he gave to Fr Perez. What information?’
Jimmy waited. She was always like this. Getting a straight answer out of her was like trying to pull teeth with your fingers. You were lucky if you could get any kind of grip on what she was actually up to.
‘It is very sensitive.’
‘Like a bad tooth.’
She raised her eyebrows. For her that was a big response.
‘I beg your pardon?’
The eyebrows returned to ground level.
‘I sometimes wonder if your help will really be worth having if I have to suffer your sense of humour alongside it. It makes me ask myself if it was a mistake to bring you out of Denmark.’
He accepted the rebuke. She was quite right, he owed her. Without her help he’d probably be dead or doing life in a Danish prison.
‘All right, let’s hear it.’
‘As I said, it is a sensitive matter. Badly handled it could become serious.’
‘And we wouldn’t want that, would we?’ She looked at him. ‘Sorry, carry on.’
He listened in silence while Professor McBride told him why he was going to Santander to talk to a man named Arthur Jarvis. When she had finished he agreed with her that yes, it was sensitive, and that if he ballsed it up it could indeed become serious, very bloody serious. He left the office and went back down to Reception, handed over his visitor’s pass, and was signed out.
Outside, the day seemed even hotter than when he had arrived, but that may have been because inside it was eternally set to American hotel comfort levels. He headed back to the nearest Metro station, half an hour’s walk away with nowhere to rest or shelter from the sun.
He was hot and tired, with the beginnings of a headache, when he finally went down into the comparative cool of the Metro. He was out of the sun but with an hour’s journey still ahead of him. It was days like this, he thought, when he regretted not owning a car. But as he cooled down, the headache left him and he felt better, and he knew that a car would be as useless to him in Rome as it would have been when he lived and worked in London. In London the traffic had been a nightmare; in Rome it was a horror story. The Metro wasn’t crowded, the morning rush was well over and he was able to sit and relax as the train clattered its way to central Rome. He changed lines at Termini which was, as always, busy and noisy, and by the time he came out of the Metro at his home station, Lepanto, he didn’t mind the sun and enjoyed the walk on the shady side of the quiet, tree-lined streets. Soon he would be back in his apartment and could get himself a cold beer.
Jimmy lived in a smart residential district north of the Vatican. His apartment was on the top floor of a four-storey building which looked just like all the other four-storey buildings that lined either side of the street, except that beside his main entrance there was a small restaurant, the Café Mozart.
He went up the stairs, let himself in, went to the kitchen and poured himself a cold beer. While he sat drinking he thought about Santander. He wondered if it would be as hot there as it was in Rome. Probably. But it was by the sea and that meant you got breezes. His mind slipped back to memories of another seaside town, Eastbourne on the south coast, where he, Bernie and the kids had gone on summer holidays. There had been brisk early morning walks, and evening strolls when they’d watched the sun setting over the sea. He remembered how evenings and mornings could be chilly even if the days were warm. He decided it would be a good idea to take along a light jacket. Santander wasn’t Eastbourne, he knew that, but an ingrained English caution about seaside summer weather told him it was always best to be prepared.