"The roads back to the Senetosa airfield are difficult enough without the storm," he added in accented English, the language mutually agreed upon.
"Senetosa can wait," replied the slender man in a raincoat, his speech betraying a Netherlands origin.
"Everything can wait until I'm finished! .. . Let me have the survey map for the north property, if you please." The Corsican reached into his pocket and withdrew a many-folded sheaf of heavy paper. He gave it to the man from Amsterdam, who rapidly unfolded it, placed it against a stone wall, and anxiously studied it. He kept turning his gaze away from the map, looking over at the area that momentarily consumed his attention.
The rain began, a drizzle that quickly became a steady shower.
"Over here, padrone," cried the guide from Bonifacio, pointing at an archway in the stone wall. It was the entrance to a long-ago garden arbor of sorts, odd insofar as the arch itself was barely four feet wide while its thickness was nearly six feet-tunnel-like, strange. It was overgrown with vines crawling up the sides, strangling the entrance forbidding Still, it was a refuge from the sudden downpour.
The 'padrone," a man in his early forties, dashed into the small sanctuary, immediately pressing the unfolded map against the spidery foliage; he took out a red felt marker from his raincoat pocket and circled a wide area.
"This section," he yelled to be heard over the pounding rain hitting the stone, "it must be roped off, sealed off, so that no one enters it or disturbs it in any way! Is that clear?"
"If that is your order, it is done. But, padrone, you're talking about a hundred or so acres."
"Then that is my order. My representatives will check constantly to make sure it's carried out."
"That is not necessary, sir, I shall carry it out."
"Good, fine, do so."
"And the rest, grande signore?"
"As we discussed in Senetosa. Everything must be precisely duplicated from the original plans as recorded in Bastia two hundred years ago, updated, of course, with modern conveniences. Whatever you need will be supplied by my ships and cargo aircraft in Marseilles.
You have the numbers and the codes for my unlisted telephones and fax machines. Accomplish what I ask of you-demand from you-and you can retire a wealthy man, your future secure."
"It is a privilege to have been chosen, padrone."
"And you understand the need for absolute secrecy?"
"Naturalmente, padrone! You are an eccentric Bavarian man of immense riches who cares to live out his life in the magnificent hills of Porto Vecchio. That is all anyone knows!"
"But if I may, grande signore, we stopped in the village and the old woman who runs that decrepit inn saw you. In truth, she fell to her knees in the kitchen and gave thanks to the Savior that you had come back."
"If you recall, when our refreshments were so long in coming, I went into the cucina and found her in very loud prayers. She wept as she spoke, saying that she could tell by your face, your eyes.
"The Barone di Matarese has returned," she repeated over and over again."
The Corsican spoke the name as it was in Italian, Mataresa.
"She thanked the Lord God that you had come back, that greatness and happiness would return to the mountains."
"That incident must be erased from your memory, do you understand me?"
"Of course, sir. I heard nothing!"
"To the reconstruction. It must be completed in six months. Spare nothing, just do it."
"I will endeavor to do my best."
"If your best is not good enough, you'll have no retirement, wealthy or otherwise, capisce?"
"I do, padrone," said the Corsican, swallowing.
"As to the old woman at the inn-" "Yes?"
Six months and twelve hysterical days passed, and the great estate of the Matarese dynasty was restored. The results were remarkable, as only many millions of dollars could ensure. The great house with its massive banquet hall was as the original architect in the early eighteenth century envisioned it, chandeliers replacing the enormous candelabrum, and the modern amenities, such as running water, toilets, air-conditioning, and, naturally, electricity, reproduced throughout.
The grounds were cleared, the sodded grass around the main house allowing for a large croquet course and a challenging putting green.
The long entrance from the road to Senetosa had been paved, submerged grass lamps lighting the way at night, and well-dressed attendants greeted all vehicles as they approached the marble steps of the entrance. What visitors did not know was that each attendant was a professional guard, in the main, former commandos from various countries. Each palmed an electronic scanner that would detect weapons, cameras, or recorders within three meters; in essence, they could expose such objects from a distance of two feet.
The orders were clear. Should anyone arrive with these items, he or she was to be forcibly detained and taken to an interrogation room where harsh questions would be asked. If the answers were unsatisfactory, there was equipment, both manual and electrical, designed to elicit more favorable responses. The Matarese was back, in all its questionable power and glory.
It was dusk, the hills of Porto Vecchio fired by the setting sun, when the limousines began arriving. The Armani-suited guards greeted the visitors solicitously, helping each from a vehicle courteously with hands that unobtrusively roamed over their clothing. There were seven outsized cars, seven guests; there would be no more. Six men and one woman, ranging in ages from their early thirties to their middle fifties, a mix of nationalities with one thing in common-all were immensely rich. Each was ushered up the marble steps of the Villa Matarese where the individual guards led them to the banquet hall. A long table was in the center of the huge room, place cards in front of the seven chairs, four on the right, three on the left, no one closer than five feet from another guest. At the head of the table was an empty chair; a small lectern stood in front of it. Two uniformed waiters rushed about taking orders for cocktails; delicate crystal bowls of beluga caviar were at each place setting, and the muted strains of a Bach fugue subtly filled the room.
Quiet conversations began haltingly, as though none of the guests understood the reason for this gathering. Yet, again, there was a common denominator: All spoke English and French, so both languages were employed, finally narrowed down to the former, as the two male Americans were neither especially quick nor sufficiently comfortable with the latter tongue. The badinage was inconsequential, reduced to who knew whom and wasn't the weather glorious in St. Tropez, or the Bahamas, Hawaii, or Hong Kong? None dared to ask the essential question: Why are we here? Six men and one woman were frightened people. They had reason to be. There was more in their individual pasts than the present suggested.
Suddenly, the music stopped. The massive chandeliers were dimmed as a small spotlight emerged from the railing of the balcony, growing brighter as it shone down on the lectern at the head of the table. The slender man from Amsterdam walked out of an alcove and moved slowly into light and the lectern. His pleasant if dismissible face looked pale under the glare, but his eyes were not to be dismissed. They were alive and steady, centering briefly on each person as he nodded to each in turn.
"I thank you all for accepting my invitation," he began, his voice an odd mixture of ice and repressed heat.
"I trust your traveling accommodations were in the style to which you are accustomed." There was a murmur of affirmatives, although hardly enthusiastic.
"I realize," continued the man from Amsterdam, "that I interrupted your lives, both social and professional, but I had no choice."
"You have it now," interrupted the lone woman coldly. She was in her thirties and dressed in an expensive black dress with a string of pearls that bespoke at least fifty thousand dollars, American.
"We're here, now tell us why."
"I apologize, madam. I am well aware you were on your way to the Rancho Mirage in Palm
Springs for an assignation with your current husband's partner in his extortionist brokerage firm. I'm sure your absence will be overlooked, as there would be no firm had you not financed it."
"I beg your pardon!"
"Please, madam, I'm uncomfortable with beggars."
"Speaking for myself," said a middle-aged, balding Portuguese, "I'm here because you implied that I could be in serious difficulty if I did not appear. Your coded allusion was not lost on me."
"My cable merely mentioned the name "Azores." Apparently it was enough. The consortium you head is fraught with corruption, the bribes to Lisbon are blatantly criminal. Should you control the Azores, you control not only the incessantly excessive airline fees but the excise taxes of over a million tourists a year. Well thought out, I'd say."
There was an eruption of voices on both sides of the table, some hinting at various questionable activities that might have been the bases of the seven coming to the hidden estate in Porto Vecchio.
"Enough, " said the man from Amsterdam, raising his voice.
"You mistake why you are here. I know more about each one of you than you know about yourselves. It is my legacy, my inheritance-and you are all inheritors. We are the descendants of the Matarese, the font from whom all your wealth derives."
The seven visitors were stunned, a number glancing at each other as if an unspeakable thing bonded them to one another.
"That's not a name we use or refer to, I shouldn't think," said an Englishman in the sartorial splendor of Savile Row.
"Neither my wife nor my children have ever heard it," he added softly.
"Why bring it up?" asked a Frenchman.
"The Matarese is long gone-dead and forgotten, a distant memory to be buried."
"Are you dead?" said the Hollander.
"Arejow buried? I think not.
Your riches have enabled you to reach the pinnacle of financial influence. All of you lead, by name or in absentia, major corporations and conglomerates, the very essence of the Matarese philosophy. And each of you was chosen by me to fulfill the Matarese destiny."
"What goddamned destiny?" asked one of the Americans, his accent from the Deep South.
"You some kinda Huey Long?"
"Hardly, but your casino interests along the Mississippi River might suggest that you are."
"My operations are as clean as they have to be, buddy-boy!"
"I relish your modifier-" "What destiny?" broke in another American.
"The name Matarese never appeared in any legal documentation relative to the real-estate interests bequeathed to my family."
"I'd be appalled if it had, sir. You're the leading attorney at a major bank in Boston, Massachusetts. Harvard Law School, magna cum laude .. . and part of the most bribery-prone institution that ever sucked money by way of compromising state and federal officials, both elected and appointed. I commend your talents."
"You can't prove any such thing."
"Don't tempt me, Counselor-you'd lose. However, I did not bring all of you to Porto Vecchio merely to parade the thoroughness of my inquiries, although I concede they're a part of the whole. The carrot and the stick, as it were.. .. First let me introduce myself. I am Jan van der Meer Matareisen, and I'm sure the last name has meaning for you. I am a direct descendant of the Baron of Matarese; he was, in fact, my grandfather. As you may or may not know, the Baron's liaisons were held secret, and whatever offspring resulted were also kept secret.
However, the great man in no way abandoned his responsibilities. His issue was sent to the finest families throughout Italy, France, England, Portugal, America, and, as I can attest, the Netherlands."
The visitors were again dumbstruck. Slowly, gradually, their eyes strayed around the table. All stared at one another briefly, penetratingly, as if some extraordinary secret was about to be revealed.
"What the hell are you getting' at?" said the large, coarse American from Louisiana.
"Spell it out, boy!"
"I agree," added the man from London, "what's your point, old man?"
"I believe several of you are already ahead of me," said Jan van der Meer Matareisen, permitting himself the trace of a smile.
"Then say it, Dutchman!" demanded the entrepreneur from Lisbon.
"Very well, I shall. Like myself, you are all children of those children. We are the products of the same loins, as the English hard might have phrased it. Each and every one of you is a blood descendant of the Baron of Matarese."
The audience exploded as one with phrases such as "We've heard of the Matarese, but nothing like this!" and "That's preposterous! My family was wealthy in its own right!" and "Look at me! I'm a natural blond, not a trace of the Mediterranean in me!" The protestations grew in volume until the protestors ran out of breath, finally subsiding as Jan Matareisen raised his hands under the shaft of light.
"I can answer your assaults specifically," he said calmly, "if you will but listen.. .. The Baron's appetites were fierce and varied, as he was. Your grandmothers were brought to him as if they were the whims of an Arabian sheikh; none, however, was defiled, for all accepted him for the extraordinary man he was. But I, and only I, was the legitimate child in the eyes of the Church. He married my grandmother."
"What the hell are we?" yelled the American from New Orleans.
"Bastards goin' back two generations?"
"Have you ever lacked for funds, sir? For education or investment."
"No .. . can't say that I have."
"And your grandmother was, and is still, an extremely beautiful woman, a model whose face and figure graced such publications as Vogue and Vanity Fair, is that not so?"
"I reckon, although she doesn't talk about it much."
"She didn't have to. She quickly married an insurance executive whose company expanded to the point where he was made president."
"You're not only suggesting, but you're also actually stating, that we're all related!" cried the attorney from Boston.
"What proof do you have?"
"Buried six feet in the earth on the northeast acreage of this property was a small vault, an oilcloth packet inside. It took me five months to find it. In the oilcloth were the names of the Baron's children and their new homelands. He was, if nothing else, precise in all things.. .. Yes, my Bostonian guest, we are all related. We are cousins, whether we like it or not. Collectively, we are the inheritors of the Matarese."
"Incredible, " said the Englishman, his breath suspended.
"My Gawd!" said the American from the Deep South.
"It's ridiculous!" shouted the blond woman from Los Angeles.
"Actually, it's rather comical," said a man from Rome in the clerical garb of the Vatican. A cardinal.
"Yes," agreed Matareisen, "I thought you might appreciate the sublime humor. You are a rogue priest, in favor with His Holiness but loathed by the Collegium."
"But you make a great deal of money from banks controlled by the Holy See, is that not so?"
"I recommend, I do not profit personally."
"According to my sources, that's debatable. I refer, of course, to a mansion on the banks of Lake Como."
"It is my nephew's."
"From his second marriage, the first having been illegally annulled by you, but let us move on. I really don't care to embarrass anyone.
After all, we are family.. .. You are all here because you are vulnerable, as I am most certainly vulnerable. If I can uncover your various enterprises, so can others. It's merely a question of provocation, time, and curiosity, isn't it?"
"You talk too damned much without sayin' a damn thing," said the agitated American from the South.
"What's your agenda, buddy-boy?"
"Agenda," I like that. It tallies with your background, a Ph.D. in business management, if I'm not mistaken."
"You're not. You can call me a redneck and you wouldn't be far wrong, but I'm not a stupid
one. Go on."
"Very well. The agenda-our agenda-is to bring to fruition the cause of the Matarese, the vision of our grandfather, Guillaume de Matarese."
All eyes were riveted on the Dutchman. It was apparent that despite reservations, the seven inheritors were intrigued-cautiously.
"Since you're far more familiar with this 'vision' than we are, might you be clearer?" asked the subdued, fashionably dressed woman.
"As you're all aware, international finance is now globally integrated. What happens to the American dollar affects the German deutsche mark, the English pound, the Japanese yen, and all the world's currencies, as well as each in turn affecting the others."
"We are well aware," said the Portuguese.
"I suspect that many of us profit considerably from the fluctuating exchange rates."
"You've suffered losses, too, haven't you?"
"Minor compared to our winnings, as my 'cousin," the American, might say of his casinos' profits, as opposed to his players' losses."
"You've got that right, Cousin-" "I believe we stray," interrupted the Englishman.
"The agenda, if you please?"
"To control the global markets, to infuse discipline on international finance-that was the cause of the visionary known as the Baron of Matarese. Put money in the hands of those who know how to use it, not governments, who know only how to waste it, pitting one nation against another. The world is already at war, a continuing economic war, yet who are the victors? Remember, whoever controls a nation's economy controls its government."
"And you're saying? ..." The Portuguese sat forward.
"Yes, I am," the Hollander broke in.
"We can do it. Our collective assets are over a trillion dollars, sufficiently excessive seed money and spread out geographically to influence the power centers we represent.
Influence that will spread across the world as rapidly as the hourly transfers of millions from one financial market to another. Acting in concert, we have the power to create economic chaos, all to our individual and collective benefit."
"That's wild," cried the entrepreneur from New Orleans.
"We can't lose 'cause we hold the cards!"