Ronald H. Balson's The Girl from Berlin is the winner of the Book Club category for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award. In this new novel, Liam and Catherine come to the aid of an old friend and are drawn into a property dispute in Tuscany that unearths long-buried secrets
An old friend calls Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart to his famous Italian restaurant to enlist their help. His aunt is being evicted from her home in the Tuscan hills by a powerful corporation claiming they own the deeds, even though she can produce her own set of deeds to her land. Catherine and Liam’s only clue is a bound handwritten manuscript, entirely in German, and hidden in its pages is a story long-forgotten…
Ada Baumgarten was born in Berlin in 1918, at the end of the war. The daughter of an accomplished first-chair violinist in the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, and herself a violin prodigy, Ada’s life was full of the rich culture of Berlin’s interwar society. She formed a deep attachment to her childhood friend Kurt, but they were torn apart by the growing unrest as her Jewish family came under suspicion. As the tides of history turned, it was her extraordinary talent that would carry her through an unraveling society turned to war, and make her a target even as it saved her, allowing her to move to Bolognathough Italy was not the haven her family had hoped, and further heartache awaited.
What became of Ada? How is she connected to the conflicting land deeds of a small Italian villa? As they dig through the layers of lies, corruption, and human evil, Catherine and Liam uncover an unfinished story of heart, redemption, and hopethe ending of which is yet to be written.
About the Author
RONALD H. BALSON is a Chicago trial attorney, an educator, and writer. His practice has taken him to several international venues. He is also the author of The Trust, Karolina's Twins, Saving Sophie, and the international bestseller Once We Were Brothers.
Read an Excerpt
Pienza, Italy, July 2017
The silver Alfa Romeo kicked up a tail of dust as it traveled the road between Montalcino and Montepulciano. The brilliant afternoon sun baked the rolling landscape of the Tuscan hills and forced Lorenzo to squint. It had been hot and dry for the past ten days, and in the struggle for Lorenzo's comfort, the Alfa's air conditioning was inadequate.
He stopped briefly in the little town of Pienza for a cold soda before heading south into the countryside. To be frank, the weather wasn't the only unpleasant aspect to this day's assignment. On the passenger seat, in his attaché case, lay a court order. Lorenzo Lenzini, Avvocato, was headed to the Villa Vincenzo to serve an eviction.
It wasn't that he minded dispossessing a resident, goodness knows he'd done that a thousand times. And it wasn't that she was elderly and in failing health, for Lorenzo had no feelings for her one way or another. It was the universal support that this perverse woman had somehow managed to rally from the local populace that unsettled him. His obligations to his client had backed him into a corner. Now he was forced to play the role of a heartless villain, and while it didn't bother him personally, he felt sure it would affect him professionally in the province of Siena.
The old stone villa was perched on a pleasant hill above groves of olive trees and rows of grapevines heavily laden with the season's crop. Well-tended flower gardens lined the perimeter of the structure. The villa was typical of Tuscan architecture — oatmeal-colored stone exterior, seasoned oak beams beneath a roof of overlapping terracotta half-pipes, flower boxes under the windows — all in the Etruscan fashion. To Lorenzo's way of thinking, nothing exceptional. Seen one, you've seen them all.
The lawyer parked his car, grabbed his attaché case, placed his Borselino panama hat squarely on his head, straightened the lapels of his cream-colored suit, puffed his chest out and strode purposefully up the stairs of the veranda and directly to the villa's front door, there to confront the intransigent Signora Vincenzo. Before knocking, he paused to take in the surrounding landscape, the green and cappuccino pastels of the richest vineyards in the world. In all directions, as far as he could see, the land was owned by his client, VinCo S.p.A., one of Italy's largest wine producers. In all directions, that is, except for the land he was standing on.
Villa Vincenzo was a rogue island in the sea of VinCo's vineyards. A trespasser. Lorenzo, on behalf of his client, had tried for months to persuade Signora Vincenzo to sell. It was an inconvenience for his client to farm around this obtrusive appendage. Villa Vincenzo was an aberration in the midst of VinCo's perfectly contiguous rows of Sangiovese, merlot and cabernet. It was a break in symmetry. It had to go.
Lorenzo had conveyed VinCo's offers to Signora Vincenzo on a dozen occasions, and they were more than fair — a cost-free relocation to a lovely rental home in the village and a cash bonus. She was foolish to turn them down. In truth, VinCo didn't have to offer a damn thing. VinCo owned the land.
It seemed to Lorenzo that Signora Vincenzo had some unnatural and unreasonable attachment to the property. How could this commonplace parcel of property have such a strong hold on such a sick old lady? She wouldn't take the offer, so now she'd forced his hand. The legal steps had all been taken, the court order had been issued, and the obstinate Signora Vincenzo would have sixty days to vacate. Sorry, but that's the way it goes.
Lorenzo gritted his teeth and knocked on the door. A young woman, whom Lorenzo knew to be Signora Vincenzo's equally obstinate nurse, answered. "What is it this time, Mr. Lenzini?"
"Please summon Signora Vincenzo to the door. I have a document to hand to her."
"I'll do no such thing. She has told you and your soulless client that she will never sell. This is her land. She has lived here for years. Now be gone."
Lorenzo rattled the eviction order in the face of the young woman. "Not so fast, Signorina," he barked, sternly and loudly. "This is a court order. Now it is you who will be gone. Signora Vincenzo must surrender possession within sixty days, or I will have the pleasure of watching the polizia toss the two of you out."
From inside the house, a raspy voice cried out, "Va via! Va via!" Gabriella Vincenzo, on unsteady legs, made her way to the front door. Age had bowed her back as though her head had become too heavy. Despite the pains she suffered in every joint, she waved her cane as menacingly as she could. "Get out. Get out! Get off my land!"
Lorenzo took a step back. With a shaking hand, he held the eviction order front and center. "You have sixty days, Signora Vincenzo. Sixty days and no more." Then he threw the order on the floor and beat a hasty retreat to his car. As he left, the young nurse consoled her patrona, who wept on her shoulder.CHAPTER 2
Chicago, July 2017
"Tell me again why we're having dinner at Café Sorrento tonight," Catherine said.
Liam parked alongside the curb and handed his keys to the valet. "Because we love the food."
Catherine raised a single eyebrow. "We do. But an urgent afternoon phone call asking me to get a babysitter at the last minute on a Thursday night means something more than 'I'm dying for a plate of Tony's veal parmesan.' Fess up. What's going on?" Liam smiled at his perceptive wife. "Tony called me this afternoon. He sounded troubled. He asked if we could come over and be his guests for dinner tonight. Pleaded would be more like it."
"Troubled? That's all he said?"
"Well, he didn't say troubled. That's how he sounded. What he said was, 'I have a small legal matter to discuss.'"
Catherine groaned. "Liam, you should have told him to make an appointment at the office, where it's quiet, confidential and uninterrupted. This packed restaurant is no place to conduct a client interview."
"He said it was a small matter. What if it's just a parking ticket or some simple licensing issue? Maybe the city's hassling him. You know, he practically lives in this restaurant. He's here fifteen hours a day. It's hard for him to come to your office."
Café Sorrento was indeed packed. There was a line at the hostess stand and several patrons were standing at the bar and in the entryway waiting to be seated. No sooner had Catherine and Liam squeezed their way through the door, then the stocky restauranteur in his three-piece suit hurried over to greet them. He warmly kissed Catherine on each cheek and vigorously shook Liam's hand.
"Buonasera, buonasera, miei cari amici," Tony Vincenzo said. "Grazie per la venuta. Thank you so much for coming." He opened his palm and gestured toward a booth in the corner.
"Prego," he said, walking briskly through his restaurant. A small bouquet and an open bottle of wine were already on the table. A server promptly appeared with menus, but Tony waved her away. "No menus tonight. These are my dear friends and I have planned a very special dinner."
Midway through the meal, Catherine leaned over and quietly said, "Liam, this dinner is over the top. We've had bruschetta, minestrone, gnocchi with veal ragout and Lord knows what he's bringing for the main course. It makes me feel that this 'small legal matter' might not be so small after all. If there's any equivalency, we're likely headed for complex litigation."
It was almost ten o'clock, after servings of grilled branzino, pecan gelato and a tray of cookies with coffee, and after the restaurant had nearly emptied, when Tony reappeared at the table carrying a briefcase. He slid into the booth and said, "Did you get enough to eat?"
"I can't move," Liam said.
"It was wonderful," Catherine said.
Tony opened his case, took out a stack of papers and laid them on the table. He looked at Catherine. "Did Liam tell you that I have a very serious legal matter?"
She gave Liam a quick evil eye and then nodded. "Yes, he did, but he used a different adjective."
Tony leaned back in the booth and spoke expressively, using his hands and arms for emphasis. "I have an aunt Gabi back in Italy. Such a sweet lady. A widow. Heart of gold. But, sorry to say, not too healthy these days. Everyone loves her. You talk to anybody, they love her."
Liam spread his hands. "And?"
Tony leaned forward. "So, some rotten bastard is trying to throw her out of her house. Can you imagine that? A seventy-eight-year-old woman, never hurt a single person, and she's not well. She can hardly walk." Tony dabbed at his eyes. "And now this stronzo, this asshole, wants to throw her out of the house that she's lived in for as long as I can remember. He's given her sixty days."
"How does this man claim rights to her property?" Catherine said.
"It's not just this man. If it was just him, I'd take care of it. Believe me, I wouldn't need a lawyer and a private detective. No, he's an attorney and he represents a big company, VinCo. Big-deal wine producer. They say VinCo holds the deed to her property."
"Did Aunt Gabi sign a deed? Did she transfer her rights?"
"Never. My aunt Gabi may be physically disabled, but mentally she's sharp as a tack. She tells me she has good title to her land. If she says it, it's so."
Tony had the dishes cleared and then rolled out a survey. "Here's her land. She calls it Villa Vincenzo. Such a sweetheart." In the middle of the survey he drew a circle with his finger. "This part, these seventy acres, are hers. She has olive trees, vineyards and vegetables. The best vegetables. Zucchini like you've never seen. I wish I could get 'em in Chicago." Then Tony circled his finger around the rest of the survey. "All the rest of this land surrounding Aunt Gabi's little piece, it all belongs to VinCo. That's why they hate her. She's a pimple on their ass. They can't stand that they don't own her little piece. They've been pestering her for months to buy her out. But she's been firm, God bless her. And now they have some slimy lawyer trying to figure out a way to steal it from her."
"Has she hired a lawyer?"
Tony nodded. "Two of them. One in her little town of Pienza and one from Siena. Cost me plenty."
"Can't they help her?"
Tony shook his head. "They say that VinCo has better title than Aunt Gabi."
"How can that be?" Liam said.
Tony shrugged. He gestured to the stack of documents. "They sent me these papers."
Catherine thumbed through the documents. "They're all in Italian. What do they say?"
"A lot of words that don't mean much to me. I can't make any sense out of this. But you, Catherine, you're the best lawyer in Chicago. Maybe the whole country."
Catherine smiled. "I appreciate your confidence, but I don't practice in Italy. I'm not familiar with Italian law, I'm not licensed to practice there and I don't even speak the language. You need an Italian lawyer."
"I told you, I've hired two of them. They both say the same thing — VinCo is the legal title holder and Aunt Gabi has to move. You want my opinion? VinCo paid them off."
"I can't read these papers, Tony."
"I'll get them translated for you. Would you go over there and straighten this out? You could talk to these lawyers. Italian, English, it doesn't matter. You all speak legalese. Would you go help my aunt? You'd love her."
Catherine sighed. "Have the documents translated and delivered to my office. I'll review them and try to give you my opinion. No promises."
Tony leaned over, cupped Catherine's face and kissed her. "Grazie, grazie. And then you'll go over there and stop them from evicting Aunt Gabi?" "I didn't say that. First things first, Tony. Let me read through the papers, try to figure out what's going on and then we'll talk."
"Fantastico." He turned to his bartender. "Franco, three glasses of limoncello."
* * *
Catherine Lockhart's law office was situated in a storefront building on Clark Street in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Catherine had been a solo practitioner in that location for five years, enjoying a comfortable neighborhood practice, in contrast to the pressured life she had previously endured as an associate lawyer with the downtown firm of Jenkins and Fairchild. It was during the case of Solomon v. Rosenzweig that Walter Jenkins had given her an ultimatum — drop Ben Solomon as a client or leave the firm. She chose the latter and has never looked back.
Tony Vincenzo entered her office early Tuesday morning and was greeted by Catherine's receptionist. She walked him back to the conference room where Catherine and Liam were waiting.
"I hope you have good news for me," Tony said.
Catherine shook her head. "The records are not as complete as I would like, but from what I can see, it looks like the Italian lawyers were right. VinCo purchased the Villa Vincenzo property, all seventy acres of it, from a decedent's estate in 2015. The deed was accepted by the province of Siena and recorded."
"What estate? My aunt is alive. How could there be a decedent's estate? Whose estate?"
"The deed came from the administrator of the estate of Gerda Fruman, a German citizen. She was the sole owner of Quercia Company, the corporation that owned the land. I have a copy of the administrator's deed. It was filed online."
"This has got to be a mistake. I never heard of Gerda Fruman. Or Quercia. I've been to Pienza many times, I've stayed at my aunt's villa for weeks at a time, and take my word for it, there's never been any Gerda Fruman. You gotta clear this up for me."
Catherine reached into the stack of papers and withdrew a court order. "This order, the one Attorney Lenzini dropped at Gabi's house, grants possession to VinCo on September 10. It was issued by a judge after a hearing. The order recites that neither your aunt nor her lawyer came to court. They didn't show up."
"Okay, that's the reason then. She probably fired the last lawyer. He told her she didn't have a good case. My aunt can be stubborn."
Catherine shook her head. "The judge ruled that your aunt's title to the land was not valid. It was outside the chain."
"The chain? What chain? What does that mean?" "The chain of title, Tony. How the property passes from one owner to another. When you look at the history of the property in the official records, it shows each time it was deeded from one person to another. The judge ruled that your aunt got a deed from someone who didn't own the property."
"When was this? Who did she buy the property from who supposedly didn't own it?" "In 1995, Carlo Vanucci deeded the property to Gabriella Vincenzo and it was recorded."
"Well, okay then, it was recorded before 2015 when VinCo got a deed."
Catherine shrugged. "I know, but the court ruled that Vanucci didn't own the property. If Italy is like the U.S., the registrar's office will accept anything you give them to record, as long as it correctly identifies the land. It's not the registrar's job to determine if a deed is valid — he just records it as a document. If someone claims it's invalid, it is up to a court to decide. From what I see here, a judge examined the chain of title and came to the conclusion that Gabriella's deed was not valid and that the deed from Fruman's estate to VinCo was valid."
Tony stood. He paced the room. "Something's wrong. This is a fraud. My aunt has lived there for years. I've been going there for fifty years, since I was a boy. There's no such person as Gerda Fruman. I never heard of no company named Quercia whatever. Can't you see? VinCo's paying off everyone. They made up this Fruman estate. Holy Mother of God, this is going to kill my aunt Gabi. She can't be evicted from her home. You gotta help me. You gotta go there and stop this."
"I don't know what we can do in Italy," Liam said. "You heard her, Catherine's not an Italian lawyer. If you're going to attack this order, you need to do it through a lawyer who practices in the province of Siena."
"I've had two of them. They both sided with VinCo."
"Maybe they're right, Tony. Maybe Aunt Gabi's title is defective."
"I don't buy it. Liam, I know you for years and you can trust me when I tell you this — it stinks like a dead fish. Please, go there and see if there's something you can do for my aunt. Catherine may not be licensed in Italy, but she has a sharp mind. She can figure things out. And you, you can find out who the hell this Quercia is. I'll pay all the costs, I'll pay Catherine's attorney's fees and you two can stay at the villa. Worst comes to worst, you got a couple weeks in Tuscany. Is that so bad?" "It's very tempting," Catherine said, "but I'm pretty sure you'd be wasting your money."
"It's my money. So let me waste it a little and try to help my aunt."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Girl from Berlin"
Copyright © 2018 Ronald H. Balson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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