Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

North From Rome, Page 3

Helen Macinnes

  “Yes, we know that too. And that worries my friends.”

  He looked at her, startled. “Friends” had been bitterly spoken.

  “They don’t like your plan to visit Perugia, not after your interest in me last night.”

  “Perugia? Your friends aren’t quite up to date on all my plans. I’m going back to America.”

  “Oh no!”

  “You are forgetting to smile,” he said. She stared at him. She looked, suddenly, so young and defenceless that he relented.

  “What’s this all about, anyway?”

  She shook her head.

  “Come on, tell me,” he urged gently. “You didn’t come here just to advise me to avoid Perugia.”

  “It was my friends who didn’t want you to go there.”

  He noticed again the bitterness with which she emphasised the word “friends.” “But you wanted me to go there?” She was silent, watching him. It seemed better to concentrate on her so-called friends. “Why did your—friends not want me in Perugia?”

  “They think you could very well be an agent, an American agent.” He stared at her. But she was serious. “You were in Army Intelligence, weren’t you?”

  He began to laugh. “Oh, I burned the bits of paper in the trash basket for a month or two. Then the office caught fire one day, and I was demoted. I held the door open for the big brass when they visited my colonel.”

  She wasn’t persuaded. And she wasn’t amused, either. She said slowly, “You’ve been in Rome for four weeks. Without any apparent purpose.”

  “I am a writer. At least, that’s what my passport says ‘writer’.”

  “That is always a very good cover.”

  “Not since Somerset Maugham wrote Ashenden.”

  “You have friends in Washington. In Intelligence work.” She was trying to fight down some major disappointment.

  “They stayed on in the service. Why shouldn’t they get promoted to Washington? You can’t expect them to live in foxholes or army tents forever.” He looked at her with curiosity. “Did you hope I was connected with Intelligence?” he asked quietly.

  She nodded. “Or the F.B.I. Or the C.I.A. Something like that...” She looked at him quickly, as if to surprise the truth.

  “No,” he could assure her frankly. “I’ve even lost touch with most of my friends. I never seem to meet them nowadays.” He frowned, as he suddenly realised that was not quite accurate. Three days ago, right here in Rome, Bunny Camden had thumped on his shoulder blade and practically given him curvature of the spine. But Bunny was probably in Naples right now, and you didn’t talk about Bunny without Bunny’s permission. Bunny was the type who knew what he was doing even if no one else ever did.

  “Yes?” she asked quickly, noting the frown.

  He said, “I’m puzzled. How did your ‘friends’ do all this research on me?—Just how did they learn—”

  “They have a good source of information on you.”

  “They have?” He was suddenly annoyed. “And who are ‘they’?”

  “We must keep our voices low,” she said. Her eyes flickered briefly towards a table under the café awning, where two men were seated. It lay opposite theirs, divided from them by a stream of passers-by. He noticed, now, that she always seemed to speak when people passed in front of them, as if their movement would hide her expression from the opposite table.

  “All right,” he said. “Who are ‘they’, anyway?” He studied her face. “You don’t really like them very much, do you? Then why call them friends?” She looked away, as if absorbed by the three American movie stars who were walking so slowly along the aisle between the tables, “Did they tell you to meet me here?”

  She nodded.

  “Then, if they expected us to meet, why were we to pretend it was all accidental? Who else is watching us?”

  “I can’t be sure,” she said. “But it is likely I am being watched by other people, too.”

  She shrugged her shoulders, but she was worried. She took the cigarette he offered her with a strained smile of thanks.

  “Weren’t you afraid to come here?” he asked.

  “I’m well guarded at this moment. And besides, the two men of last night are—” she hesitated “—they are dead.”

  “What?” He was incredulous, and then frankly disbelieving.

  “Please,” she said, “we must keep our voices low.”

  “Who killed the men who attacked you? Your friends?” He began to smile a little. What a story, what undiluted hogwash! Either that, or she’d better change the company she keeps, he thought.

  “So they told me. This morning. But perhaps it may have been a lie—to make me feel all is safe. But—” She took a deep breath. Her lips trembled for a moment. Suddenly, watching the fear she was trying to hide, he believed at least part of her story.

  He said, “Do your friends know that you are working against them?”

  Her face went rigid with surprise at his guess. Quickly, with a pathetic smile, she said, “Please—please pretend I’m finding out about you, instead of your finding out about me.”

  “And what do your friends want to learn about me?”

  “Why you are in Italy? Are you dangerous to them?”

  “Dangerous?” He was now amused. Her sense of the dramatic was more Italian than American, although her accent was practically regulation Miss Hewitt’s Classes. She must have lived for a number of years in the United States, been to school there. Her manners were the recognisable pattern of the well-brought-up Eastern girl. “Wellesley or Smith?” he asked suddenly.

  “Please take me seriously,” she said sharply. “And my college was Radcliffe.”

  “Then we’ve got Cambridge in common.” That was always a useful point of departure in any friendship. In a way, he thought, it was a pity that this one was going to be so short.

  “Take me seriously,” she repeated, her voice dropping. Her eyes were unhappy. Her smile was pleading.

  “How can I? I don’t know who you are. Or what you are really trying to tell me.”

  “Don’t leave Italy,” she said, turning her head to look at the traffic behind them in the busy street. If anyone had been lip reading her remarks, this little move would have defeated him neatly. “Please don’t go. I need your help.”

  “I don’t think your friends would approve of that suggestion. What’s their line of business, anyway?”

  She considered her answer for a long moment, and in the end she didn’t give it. “The sun is moving around,” she said, her voice as unhappy as her eyes. She pulled back her arm into the shade, and moved her chair a few inches into the narrowing shadows. “Soon we shall have to leave.” She glanced over once more at the table with the two men. One was a middle-aged English-looking type: he still sat there, reading a book. The other, a handsome dark-haired Italian in an expensive grey suit, had left. But his drink was unfinished. He could be visiting another table. Lammiter found himself suddenly, unexpectedly, sharing the girl’s tenseness. He looked at the reading Englishman—the thin haggard face and shadowed eyes seemed vaguely familiar, so did the lock of long wayward hair falling over the narrow upraised eyebrow—and then back at the girl.

  “Something wrong?” he asked her quietly.

  “I’ll soon know,” she said, watching the waiter approaching them. “Mr. Lammiter, can I say you’ve asked me to luncheon with you?”

  “Yes, you can say that.” But to whom? “And I hope you’ve accepted.”

  The waiter said, “Signorina Di Feo? Telephone for you, if, you please.”

  “Ah yes,” she said. “Thank you.” She looked at Lammiter, and rose slowly.

  “What comes before Di Feo?” he asked.

  “Rosana,” she said. She had a proud way of carrying her head, a most attractive and tantalising way of turning to give a glancing smile over her shoulder.

  “I’ll wait here until you get back. Don’t be long, or I’ll get sunstroke.”

  Then, as he settled down to wai
t, he wondered whether she would come back. If she really needed help, she would. And yet, where did that place him? He was leaving Rome tonight. What help could he give? It would be kinder if he walked away, so that when she came back to this table—if she did come back—she would know that he couldn’t give any help. Then she’d have to begin looking for some other obliging idiot. Yet he didn’t start counting out money to cover the two paper tabs that the waiter had left under the ashtray. He didn’t make one move to leave. Instead, he leaned back in his chair, felt the warm sun play on his spine, and watched the parade of handsome Romans mixing with the eternal tourists.


  As he waited for Rosana, Lammiter again noted the preponderance of young America: the college girls; and the high-school boys; and the young men just out of service, their hair still close-cut, their shoulders still squared away, and the G.I. savings in their pockets. There were older Americans, too, mostly family men shepherding their flocks back to their hotels: the grey-haired and bald-headed fathers, in button-down collars and the new drip-dry jackets posing as seersucker, patiently accepting a summer vacation spent in museums and churches while dissembling their worry about the low evaporation point of money; the wives, who had read the guide books and provided the enthusiasm, now harried and hurried but still determined on culture in spite of the problems of food and drink for the children, of nylon laundry all over the bathroom, of the chore of keeping a family neat while it lived from suitcases; the children themselves, remarkably good-natured, who must have had better ideas on spending a hot summer day than by breathing the petrol fumes of a modern city. The English tourists were mostly middle-aged. The men wore high-waisted trousers held up by taut suspenders over transparent nylon shirts open and neatly folded back at the neck. And their choice in holiday shoes was odd: criss-crossed, leather sandals displaying lots of heavy wool sock. Their women weren’t what Lammiter expected, either: they didn’t look like the Englishwomen he met in New York or Washington: these Roman tourists were more solidly constructed, sensible in shoes and ankles, more like Brussels sprouts than the well-advertised roses, nice and wholesome and all so very much alike. With some pepper and salt and butter, they’d probably taste alike, too. Once outside of the buses which had brought them across Europe, the English couples kept together, in tight phalanxes of four or six, as if they distrusted the friendliness of the natives. Perhaps they were new to travel, and were still worried about white-slave traffic, unmentionable diseases, and pickpockets. The thin middle-aged Englishman sitting at the table opposite Lammiter seemed both horrified and fascinated by his own countrymen: he kept looking up at them in pained disbelief. Not one tie, far less an old school tie, among them.

  If the English stiffened into set moulds when they travelled, the French became as shapeless as a melted candle. Not for them was the clean shirt, and the trousers at least pressed under the mattress, or the dainty afternoon frock; they dressed for a comfortable journey (which usually meant five packed into a small beetle-like car with bits and pieces of luggage strapped all around): crumpled shorts and hairy legs, wrinkled skirts and soiled blouses, bare feet in equally dusty sandals. They sauntered slowly, carelessly, dropping into a ragged single file as often as not, like a column of Bedouins cautiously straggling into rival territory. If they were impressed, it was well disguised. And the worse a French tourist dressed, the more contemptuously he looked at others. The carefully washed, brushed, and dressed Italians—even those who could afford only one meal a day— refused to be scorned. They ignored the tourists (after all, Rome had been invaded by barbarians for centuries) and watched the pretty Roman girls with national pride. From sixteen until twenty-two or so, they were beautiful, as beautiful as any Lammiter had ever seen anywhere. But what happened after twenty-two, he wondered? Then he saw Rosana Di Feo coming towards him at last. She was an exception to the general rule, he considered. She must be twenty-three or -four, and she was still a beauty.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, “to have been so long.” But she didn’t sit down.

  So he rose. “I was watching the tourists,” he explained.

  Her voice was very low. “I’ve watched them for three days, watched and watched and wondered. Did you see anyone who looked as if he’d risk danger?”

  He glanced at her curiously, and counted out the money and the tip for their drinks. “Shall we lunch now?”

  “I can’t.” Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. She stood with her back to the other tables, to the café windows. “They’ve learned you are leaving Italy tonight.”

  “Oh?” He hoped his face was under control. “So you’re under orders to leave me alone now. I’m no longer dangerous?” He had spoken half-jokingly. But she faced him, her back to the crowded tables, her face unguarded for a moment, and he suddenly realised that she was both afraid and hopeless.

  “Yes,” she said. “Those are the orders.”

  “And did the orders come by telephone, or by that handsome black-haired Italian in the grey suit? The one who sat opposite us for a while with the thin Englishman?”

  “How did you know?”

  “Because he is standing at the café door, watching you, right now.” She said nothing to that. He said, suddenly serious, “Perhaps it would have been safer for you not to come back to this table.”

  “I told him it would be very suspicious if I left you without saying goodbye.”

  “Who is he?” The Italian was a tall man, about thirty-five or so, with dark hair, thick, carefully brushed. He had a superior air, as if he were accustomed to behave correctly. He was obviously well fed, but also well exercised. He was most carefully dressed. Handsome, yes. Attractive to women, definitely. Now he was going forward to another table, to spend a few minutes in conversation with an ageing beauty, exquisitely dressed, her white face sheltered from the sun by an elaborate hat, her vanity bolstered by the adulation of the two young men who kept her company.

  Rosana hesitated. But she didn’t answer his question. “If you change your mind about leaving,” she said, holding out her hand to shake his, “it would be safest to keep it a secret.” She pressed a small wad of paper into his palm, “Goodbye.”

  “Safest for whom?”

  “For both of us.”

  He shook hands solemnly, but the amusement quickened in his eyes. He was convinced that a good deal of dramatics had gone into persuading him to stay. There was too much emotion, too much play-acting around here for his taste. He’d stick to the theatre for that kind of thing, keeping it safest in a world of make-believe. But the day stretched out in its lonely fashion before him till he’d got on that homebound plane, and he tried to prolong the goodbye.

  “Have a safe journey,” she said, a little bitterly, as if she had read his thoughts and she turned away.

  Quickly, he started after her. He raised his voice to normal, “I’m sorry we can’t lunch together.”

  She said urgently, quietly, “Don’t follow me. Stay at your table!”

  “Let me walk you to the corner,” he said. “Even acquaintances do that.”

  “There’s no need.”

  “None. But I want to. Besides, if I didn’t walk a pretty girl to the corner, it would look odd.”

  They were passing the table now where the ageing beauty, her two young men, and the handsome dark-haired Italian were sitting.

  “Oh, Rosana!” It was the older woman speaking, her white face cracking delicately round the lips and eyes. “You never come to see me any more,” she said chidingly.

  “I shall, Principessa,” Rosana promised, halting unwillingly but politely as the three men at the table rose to their feet. Lammiter walked on slowly for a few paces, plunging his hands into his pockets as if he had nothing to do but wait. It was a relief to let the small wad of paper drop free from his palm into safety. Then he halted, looking at the traffic, while he lit a cigarette.

  The princess’s voice held Rosana. “We move soon to the hills. So come tomorrow, Rosana. The boys want to go
to Ischia”— Lammiter could almost hear the flutter of their eyes and the pouting of their lips as they mimed their disappointment— “but I refuse to have anything to do with the Bay of Naples in August.” And then there was a new inflection in the clear-carrying voice, one of subtle sarcasm. “Luigi, do let me introduce you. Luigi Pirdtta—the Signorina Di Feo.” Lammiter almost swung round to face the dark-haired Italian. “But of course,” the princess halted the introduction half-way, “you have met. How stupid of me! Wasn’t Luigi a great friend of your brother’s, my dear?” Her voice was elegiac now, hinting at disaster. Lammiter glanced casually around. The dark-haired Italian was very much at ease, sympathetic, regretful. Was it the charm of his manners that had caught Eleanor Halley so surely? Or his profile, or his shoulders? They were all good. Lammiter threw away the cigarette, which had suddenly turned bitter. “How sad it all was, my dear, how indescribably sad!” the princess told Rosana, and then the girl, with a small bow and a fixed smile, walked on to join Lammiter.

  He said nothing until they had passed the last table on the sidewalk. There was still something of shock and disbelief in his voice when he said, “Pirotta? Luigi Pirotta?... Or was she lying?”

  “The princess may be tactless, malicious, even rude. But she never lies. Yes, that is Pirotta. He has a title, too, to impress his American fiancée.” Rosana glanced at him swiftly. “I’m sorry,” she added.

  He didn’t speak. He was still trying to accustom himself to the idea that the dark-haired Italian was Eleanor Halley’s choice for a husband.

  She said, “All right, I’ll be honest. I’m not sorry. Except that the princess played my trump card. I was going to tell you his name before we parted. So that you would stay.”


  “I am offering you revenge.”

  He began to smile without much humour. He shook his head.

  “You won’t call it revenge, of course. That’s too elemental. But Pirotta did steal your girl, didn’t he? And now you begin to find out that, although he has a title and a distinguished family, and totally innocent friends with some kind of name or fame attached, and everything seemingly blameless, he still is not quite right, is he? He is not what Eleanor Halley thinks he is. Or what you thought he was.”