Follow That Blondeby Joan Smith
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Lana Morton had four days to discover Rome on her group tour of Italy with her cousin Nancy. But she tossed that coin in the Trevi Fountain wishing for adventure--and she got it in the form of Nick Hansen, Italian/American artist extraordinaire, when they found themselves targets in a dangerous game of deceit in Rome's art world.
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- Belgrave House
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My blouse clung like damp tissue to my back. Wet spaghetti strands of hair glued themselves to my fevered brow, and the blister on my little toe was bleeding. I know--you're supposed to wear comfortable, flat-heeled shoes for sightseeing, but the sights we had in mind when we left the hotel were the fancier shops along the Via Condotti, and you don't wear sneakers there. Not that either Nancy or I planned to add to our wardrobe at Bulgari's or Gucci's, but when in Rome ... And that's where we were--determined to see it all during the few hours of the day that anything was open. Where we were not, unfortunately, was within view of the Via Condotti.
We were in one of those narrow, cobblestoned alleys that run like capillaries through the city, leading nowhere. The rough paving hated my heeled sandals, but not as much as I hated Rome. And I had looked forward to it so! Paris and Rome were supposed to be the highlights of our trip. Paris was great, very French, very enjoyable, very expensive. Rome turned out to be a crumbling, disjointed, unfriendly old jumble of a place, with a few new buildings sticking out like brass buttons on a shroud. Pisa had no monopoly on leaning buildings. The slanting walls of the houses in this alley practically met overhead. They looked ready to tumble down on us at any moment. On the façade beside us there was a mosaic of the Virgin held in an oval frame with a card stuck in it advertising shoe repairs on the floor above. It struck me as fairly typical of Rome: a lot of religiosity, tinged with commerce. In the doorway, two cats lapped pasta from a tin plate.
When we came to the next corner, Nancy Bankes grabbed my elbow and pointed left."There--that looks like a real street," she said hopefully, and we headed toward it. At the intersection there was an Italian traffic policeman in white helmet and gloves, doing his imitation of Baryshnikov, bowing and mincing and throwing his arms around as cars and motorcycles whizzed past. It was a real street, and I girded my toes for another block of torture.
A block past the traffic cop, we stumbled out into searing sunlight and a blaze of expensive boutiques. We had already done the requisite Rome-tourist things with our tour group: been awestruck by St. Peter's, thrown our French change into the Fountain of Trevi (before I learned this presaged a return to Rome!). No doubt the charm wouldn't work. Nothing else did, including the telephones. We had visited churches, toured the Colosseum, visited more churches, been jostled up and down the Spanish Steps and admired the view, had our aperitivi at outdoor cafés, visited more churches. Nancy's eminently pinchable bottom was black and blue from Italian "compliments." My pristine white cellulite was slightly marked. What I had especially wanted to see, we had missed. It had poured rain the evening we were supposed to see the Sound and Light show at the Forum. Fortunately, our group rescheduled the trip for tonight.
I dug a Band-Aid out of my big purse and leaned against a storefront to apply it, while Nancy cased the pedestrians for hunks. One of them "accidentally" bumped against her and stopped to apologize profusely in incomprehensible Italian before I got the Band-Aid on. There are hazards to traveling with a Nancy Bankes. Nature had endowed my cousin with all the charms that ensure survival of the species, viz a mane of tangled blonde hair, big green eyes with lashes a yard long, pouty lips, a warm, gullible personality, and the kind of figure that is currently out of fashion but never goes out of style.
Opposites attract. It is a continuing humiliation that my mother named me Lana, after the movie star. I was such a pretty baby, she says, and the family album supports this unlikely fact. Blonde curls have faded to mouse, streaked back to blonde when I get around to it, which I did for this European tour. My blue eyes prefer glasses to contacts. I bought a pair of prescription-tinted glasses for this trip, to lighten the image of the school teacher. My cute little dimpled baby's body has stretched to five feet, eight inches, reasonably fleshed, but lacking the sort of curves that cause Italian pedestrians to lose their balance.
"You're lucky," Nancy often says. "If I so much as smell chocolate, I put on a pound." What she doesn't say is that the extra weight goes to all the right places. She has a nineteen-inch waist, which accentuates the thrust of bosoms above, the flare of hips below. She's not perfect, however. Her ankles are fat, whereas I have the slender, bony underpinnings of a thoroughbred.
I got the Band-Aid on, and Nancy and I went whispering and giggling like a couple of hicks into the expensive -ucci boutiques--Gucci, Pucci--to be condescended to by the clerks. In Bulgari's, Nancy's smile got the man to actually unlock a big sapphire ring from the glass-fronted counter and let her try it on, with a guard hovering nearby. She pretended not to realize the clerk was hitting on her, but I'm sure she recognized such words as bella, telefono, albergo, and ristorante. God knows she'd heard them often enough the past week. What hampered her understanding was that she was becoming involved with our tour guide, Ron Evereton. Nancy wants to get married, and certainly will. She could get hit on at a Girl Guides Convention.
"Grazie, signore," she said with a smile, and we left, ringless of course, to continue our window shopping.
"I'd like to get back to that Via dei Coronari where they have the antique shops," I said. "There was an old silver filigree necklace there I'd like to buy. Let's try to find a taxi. I can't walk another step."
Nancy wrinkled her nose. She doesn't approve of antiques. Our tastes are quite dissimilar. "It's this way," I said, and we walked some more, beyond that charmed circle where traffic is limited to essential vehicles, of which there seem to be an inordinate number.
"An aperitivo?" she suggested, knowing my weakness. "We have time. We're not meeting the group for dinner till seven-thirty. Gee, I wish we could stay longer than four days. You can't begin to see Rome in four days," she pouted.
A batch of umbrella-shaded tables lured us across the street. I sat down and eased my swollen toes out of my sandals. "Campari and soda, per piacere."
"Make that due," Nancy said, smiling.
The waiter took a peek down her scoop-necked blouse (that was mostly scoop) before leaving. We were sitting under our red and white striped umbrella, sipping Camparis, feeling very tired and hot and continental, when I saw him. With the innate viciousness of the young, we used to call Bert "Pig Eyes" at school. He had sharp green eyes with sparse lashes and an upturned nose. If he had been popular, we would probably have thought him cute, but Bert was never popular. He tried too hard, and he wore the wrong clothes.
"That's Bert Garr!" Nancy exclaimed excitedly.
I suppose every high school gang has a Bert Garr. Despite the fact that nobody really liked him, he had somehow wheedled his way into our group with an unpleasant mixture of groveling, maneuvering, determination and sheer nerve on his part, and apathy on ours. When a party was being planned, he'd volunteer to do whatever unpleasant job needed to be done, to make sure he was included. He was good at getting bargains--records, stereos--as he always knew someone that would give him a discount. Then, too, we felt a little sorry for him, but as sure as you were nice to him, he'd turn around and use you in some way.
I looked down the street at the blonde man hustling along, ogling some girls. Bert had always been a hustler. He still looked like one, although he had upgraded his clothes. Today he wore a decent shirt, blue and white stripes, with blue trousers and expensive Italian loafers. He was wearing sunglasses, too. I hadn't recognized him at first, but as he got closer, I realized it was him all right, thinned down, with a more stylish haircut. The last time I'd seen him was the summer he graduated from Benjamin Franklin High, a year before I did. He had long hair then, and zits. He kept looking over his shoulder now, and the fast walk turned into a run, as if somebody was chasing him. Nobody in his right mind would run in weather like this.
"What can he possibly be doing here?" I mused. "Didn't he get a job in New York after high school?"
"That was ages ago." Nancy stood up and began waving and shouting. "Bert! Bert Garr, over here."
Bert stopped, looked all around. For a minute, I had the strange feeling he was frightened or something. He looked back, searching the throng on the sidewalk. Nancy shouted again and he spotted us. A smile split his face and he came pouncing down on us. I took a quick peek at the passing crowd, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to Bert.
"Nancy Bankes. I don't believe it! If you aren't a sight for sore old Yankee eyes."
Before he could pull her off her chair and into his arms, she shook his hand. "Wow. Talk about synchronicity!" Nancy beamed. She had been reading Carl Jung, and was much caught up in synchronicity that summer. From what I could figure out, this synchronicity was a blend of ESP and coincidence, although Jung (and Nancy) clothed it in loftier terms.
"And we didn't even set our watches." Bert's use of idiom was always a little off. As an English teacher, I found this about as grating as a fingernail scraped over a blackboard. "Nice to see a face from home. Can I join you, buy you ladies a drink?" He sat down and examined me. "Is that you, Lana?" He pulled his glasses down and peered over them.
"Hi, Bert. Fancy meeting you here." We shook hands. Time had improved Bert's looks. The zits had left no marks behind. His pink skin had tanned to café au lait, and his figure was now good. He tossed his head at the waiter. "Vino secco, bianco per favore, Mac." He hooked his elbows over the back of his chair, arched out his chest, crossed one leg over the other, and smiled. His manner hadn't changed. Still trying to act as if he owned the world. I noticed the loafers were worn down at the heels. "So what brings you ladies to the Eternal City?"
"We're making a four-week tour--England, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal," Nancy explained.
"The Latin lap. Too bad you settled for the cheap one. Germany and Belgium are worth a gander. Very clean. So you're ladies of leisure, I see. You must have married doctors." He checked out Nancy's left hand and, as an afterthought, mine.
"No, we're still single," Nancy said. "We both teach at Benjamin Franklin High. Lana teaches English; I teach Art."
"Oh, teaching. It figures. So you're both still back in little old Troy," he said, shaking his head in a patronizing way that suggested he was now the C.E.O. of some international corporation. "What's keeping that waiter?"
"Are you married, Bert?" Nancy asked with a hungry eye.
"Who, me?" He laughed. "No way, José."
"What are you doing here?" I asked. Whatever it was, I knew it would be insignificant, possibly borderline illegal, and he'd make it sound as if he were running the country.
"I guess you'd call it P.R. I have a stable of artists. I do their publicity, manage some of 'em. Kind of an agent." He took off his sunglasses and began sucking one end.
"What do you mean?" Nancy asked. "Like, performing artists, or what?"
"No, real artists, guys that paint pictures. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
"Are you an artist?" Nancy asked, ready to find synchronicity lurking. I knew better. Bert sprinkled clichés with a fine lack of discrimination, like salt on French fries.
"Not an artist per se. More of an appreciator."
"Do you live here, in Rome?"
"I've got to be some place. I finally settled down in Rome."
"Weren't you working in New York?" Nancy asked, frowning.
Bert rolled his eyes skyward. "You're talking ancient history, Nance. I've done it all since then. I did some marketing for Pan-Am in the Big Apple." I mentally translated this to selling tickets. "Did a lot of globe-trotting--freebies. I worked for a travel agency for a while, and finally I decided to be a guide. Why not put my experience to use? When I got tired of the old If-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium routine, I put up my tent on the banks of the Tiber. Time to put down some roots." He uncrossed his legs and planted his run-down loafers firmly on the pavement.
"How did you become an artist's agent?" Nancy asked. It was a reasonable question. I'd be surprised if Bert knew a Michelangelo from a marshmallow.
"A guy gets around," he said vaguely. "When I was a tour guide, I used to go through the galleries a lot with the people we hired to herd the gang. Culture--I figure it wouldn't do me any harm. I learned about chiaroscuro, impasto, perspective--all that artistic jazz." Nancy nodded her approval. "Boy, if I ever have to look at that Mona Lisa again, I'll barf. Talk about your bow-wows. Now this exhibit I've mounted? Hey! I'm just on my way there now." He leaned forward eagerly. "I'm meeting my main man. Wanna come along and meet a real artist?" He did a quick scan of the street as he spoke. I had that uncomfortable feeling again that Bert was being followed. Was he inviting us along to protect him?
Nancy said "Wow! Super, huh, Lana?"
"Your wine hasn't come yet. Bert," I reminded him.
"Forget it. If they don't want my lire, I'll keep them."
Nancy began to gather up her purse. I had visions of some hole-in-the-wall den, hung with amateurish scrawls designed to gouge money from tourists. "It's getting a little late," I said.
"It's only four-thirty," Bert pointed out. He lifted his arm and flashed a Gucci watch, one of those ones with the red and green striped face. I noticed chrome showing below the gilt paint on the edges. "Gucci," he said, then snorted. "A knockoff. A man over on Via Condotti can get them for five sawbucks, and he still makes fifty percent on every deal, but you didn't hear it from this guy. Imagine what Gucci, Inc., makes. So, are you gals coming along or what?"
"My feet are bleeding," I said.
"We'll share a taxi," Nancy suggested. "Where's the gallery, Bert?"
"You could hop to it on one foot from here. It's not exactly a gallery," he said. My spirits sank. More cobblestoned alleys. "I've hired the exhibition room at the Quattrocento Hotel."
Bert could still surprise. The ancient grandeur of the Quattrocento--Bert Garr? It was like a rock concert at the Vatican. The Quattrocento was not only respectable, it was downright prestigious. This I had to see. "Just let me stick another Band-Aid on my toe. This one's coming off already."
"You should wear comfortable, flat-heeled shoes for rubbernecking," Bert said. "I always told my group to."
I fixed my Band-Aid while Bert and Nancy talked about the old days in Troy. He placed some bills on the table. "My treat, I insist," he said grandly, and ruined the gesture by adding "even if I didn't have anything to drink." With one hand on Nancy's elbow, the other on mine, he hurtled us along to the hotel.
I wondered if we'd be invited to leave when I got a look at the old marble floor, the soaring ceiling, the antique statues, and gilt and plush everything else in the lobby. It was one of those hushed places where you could hear a diamond drop. Bert's slightly nasal twang echoed. "This place is considered très chic, believe it or not. I'll take a nice new Hilton any day, but Nick--that's my man--prefers this joint. We opened last week--too bad you weren't here. We had champagne and caviar and everything. We even had a contessa drop in."
I assumed the Contessa was one of Bert's embroideries, an assumption which was wrong. He led us down a marble corridor to the exhibition room. It had double doors, both opened. A marble and gilt table at the entrance held about fifty pounds of fresh flowers in huge urns. A young man sat at a table with brochures and papers in front of him. Bert called him Alberto, and talked to him for a minute in Italian, with a sprinkling of English. A quiet crowd moved about, examining the pictures. This was no tourist rip-off. The people had that old world, old money air about them. Their voices were discreetly low, and they were actually examining the pictures. I decided that what Bert really did here was take turns with Alberto, guarding the door. Our lack of Italian would keep us in the dark.
"Have a gander, ladies. I'll be right back," Bert said, and faded into the crowd. We went in and gazed all around. There were no scrawls, no wild blobs of modern art here. The paintings were serenely beautiful landscapes of the Italian countryside. The skill of the artist was unmistakable. Maybe genius wasn't too strong a word to use. I felt the hair on the back of my neck move, the way it lifts in homage to a true masterpiece. The scenes were varied: some of them rough, geometric Tuscany countryside, more of them gently rolling hills of Umbria, with ancient farmhouses tucked into valleys or hanging from the mountainside. There were figures of people in some of them, bent old women in black gowns and men with medieval faces. One painting was of an olive orchard with boys in the gnarled, misshapen trees, shaking them. Nets were spread under the trees to catch the harvest. The surface was so smooth, almost transparent, as if the painting had grown on the canvas. "Tempera," Nancy explained. "Not many work in that medium nowadays. Wyeth does, back home. It's very difficult. You can tell the artist really loves Italy. I wonder if he's here."
I was wondering if Bert even knew him. How could such a sensitive man tolerate Bert Garr for his agent? I saw Bert talking to a tall, slender man in a white suit, and knew the man was the artist. At least he looked the way an Italian artist should look. Silky black hair grown rather long, just touching his shirt collar. One ruler-straight lock fell over his forehead. His eyes were like black velvet, softly passionate. His cheeks were lean and tanned, rather ascetic, and his expression sensitive. He gestured with his long-fingered, El Greco hands, his arms, his whole body, but in a lazy, languorous way, as if the world was not to be taken too seriously. Bert, wearing a harried frown, was talking a mile a minute. The man looked mildly bemused.
I edged closer. The artist was speaking now to a red-faced man in a clerical collar. His dulcet voice, smooth and luxurious as cashmere sounded lovely. I thought Bert must have pointed Nancy and me out to him, because as the priest answered, the artist's dark eyes moved occasionally toward us, wearing a gleam of interest. Nancy, being only five feet, one inch, couldn't see over the intervening heads.
"A lot of this stuff is sold already," she pointed out. "And look at the prices! Of course it's quoted in lire, but even so ..."
"How did Bert ever latch on to this man?" I asked. It was a rhetorical question, but Nancy answered, in a huffy voice.
"What do you mean? Bert was always a go-getter. He was voted the most likely to succeed in our yearbook."
"He was voted the most likely to become a millionaire or end up in jail," I reminded her. I trust she needed no reminding of the reason for the addendum. When Bert, the crook, was Treasurer of the Student Council, there were invariably shortfalls, which he disguised by some accounting cosmetic surgery. Mysterious entries appeared in the books. Like entertainment for advertising purposes, but none of the local stores or companies were accustomed to being wooed into their twenty-five dollar contributions to the yearbook. Transportation suddenly appeared in the accounts. (Bert's usual transportation was a bicycle.) Certainly he pocketed part of our money, hard earned by selling chocolate bars door to door. And now he had graduated to cheating this beautiful, innocent artist of part of his earnings. As sure as God made green apples, Bert was running some scam.
"You never did like Bert," she accused.
"Neither did anybody else."
The awful truth was out before I remembered that Nancy had gone out with him for a while. I've already indicated our tastes are different. We were never best friends, but as cousins in the same grade through school, we saw a lot of each other. And now that we were both teaching at Ben Franklin, we were together five days a week. Which still doesn't explain why she went out with Bert. I never could understand it, although he lived on her block, and since he was a little older, maybe she had some carry-over of hero worship. She could have had anyone, but she went out with Bert for about a month, and even then I think he broke it off. It was around the time Bert graduated.
The cleric wandered off. Bert got hold of the artist's elbow and began rushing him over to meet us. I felt suddenly shy. I wished I had paid more attention to the dog-eared Berlitz phrasebook in my purse.
"Gals, this is my man, Nickie. A regular Michelangelo."
Nickie--Niccolò. A fine old Italian name. "Piacere della?" Oh lord, what came next? I smiled and hunched my shoulders apologetically.
"Pleased to meetcha." Niccolò smiled, and pumped my hand firmly. Not a trace of Italy in his accent, although he had been speaking Italian earlier. There was something different, possibly an echo of Boston. Was this languorous Adonis an American?
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