promised between Pucinelli and myself, I had telephoned his office to tell him the drop was about to start.

Pucinelli had not been there, but we had planned for that contingency.

In basic Italian I had said, 'I am Andrew Douglas. Tell Enrico Pucinelli immediately that the ambulance is moving.'

The voice at the other end had said it understood.

I now wished with all my heart that I had not kept my promise to give Pucinelli that message; but cooperation with the local police was one of the firm's most basic policies.

Pucinelli's own trust in me, it now turned out, had not been so very great. Perhaps he had known I would rather have lost track of the suitcase then give away my presence near the drop. In any case, both the suitcase's homer, and a further homer in the van, had been trackable from Pucinelli's own official car. The colleague-on-duty, receiving my message, had not consulted Pucinelli but had simply set out with a maximum task force, taking Pucinelli's staff car and chasing personal glory. Stupid, swollen-headed, lethal human failing.

How in God's name was I going to tell Paolo Cenci? And who was going to break it to the lawyer that his bright student son had been shot?

'The boy who was driving,' I said to Pucinelli. 'Is the boy alive?'

'He's gone to hospital. He was alive when they took him. Beyond that, I don't know.'

'His father must be told.'

Pucinelli said grimly, 'It's being done. I've sent a man.'

This mess, I thought, was going to do nothing at all for the firm's reputation. It was positively my job to help to resolve a kidnap in the quietest way possible, with the lowest of profiles and minimum action. My job to calm, to plan, to judge how little one could get a kidnapper to accept, to see that negotiations were kept on the coolest, most businesslike footing, to bargain without angering, to get the timing right. My brief, above all, to bring the victim home.

I had by that time been the advisor-on-the-spot in fifteen kidnaps, some lasting days, some weeks, some several months. Chiefly because kidnappers usually do release their victims unharmed once the ransom is in their hands, I hadn't so far been part of a disaster; but Alessia Cenci, reportedly one of the best girl jockeys in the world, looked set to be my first.

'Enrico,' I said, 'don't talk to these kidnappers yourself. Get someone else, who has to refer to you for decisions.'

'Why?' he said.

'It calms things down. Takes time. The longer they go on talking the less likely they are to kill those people in the flat.'

He considered me briefly. 'Very well. Advise me. It's your job.'

We were alone in the van and I guessed he was sorely ashamed of his force's calamity, otherwise he would never have admitted such a tacit loss of face. I had realised from shortly after my first arrival at the villa that as officer-in-charge he had never before had to deal with a real kidnap, though he had carefully informed me that all carabinieri were instructed in the theory of kidnap response, owing to the regrettable frequency of that crime in Italy. Between us, until that night, his theory and my experience had done well enough, and it seemed that he did still want the entente to go on.

I said, 'Telephone that flat direct from here. Tell the kidnappers you are arranging negotiations. Tell them they must wait for a while. Tell them that if they tire of the waiting they may telephone you. Give them a number… you have a line in this van?'

He nodded. 'It's being connected.'

'Once their pulses settle it will be safer, but if they are pressed too hard to start with they may shoot again.'

'And my men would fire…' He blinked rapidly and went outside, and I could hear him speaking to his forces through a megaphone. 'Do not return fire. I repeat, do not shoot. Await orders before firing.'

He returned shortly, accompanied by a man unrolling a wire, and said briefly, 'Engineer.'

The engineer attached the wire to one of the switch boxes and passed Pucinelli an instrument which looked a cross between a microphone and a handset. It appeared to lead a direct line to the flat's telephone because after a pause Pucinelli was clearly conversing with one of the kidnappers. The engineer, as a matter of course, was recording every word.

The Italian was too idiomatic for my ears, but I understood at least the tone. The near-hysterical shouting from the kidnapper slowly abated in response to Pucinelli's determined calmness and ended in a more manageable agitation. To a final forceful question Pucinelli, after a pause, answered slowly and distinctly, 'I don't have the authority. I have to consult my superiors. Please wait for their reply.'

The result was a menacing, grumbling agreement and a disconnecting click.

Pucinelli wiped his hand over his face and gave me the tiniest flicker of a smile. Sieges, as I supposed he knew, could go on for days, but at least he had established communications, taking the first vital step.

He glanced at the engineer and I guessed he was wanting to ask me what next, but couldn't because of the engineer and his recordings.

I said, 'Of course you will be aiming searchlights at those windows soon so that the kidnappers will feel exposed.'

'Of course.'

'And if they don't surrender in an hour or two, naturally you'd bring someone here who's used to bargaining, to talk to them. Someone from a trades union, perhaps. And after that a psychiatrist to judge the kidnappers' state of mind and tell you when he thinks is the best time to apply most pressure, to make them come out.' I shrugged deprecatingly. 'Naturally you know that these methods have produced good results in other hostage situations.'


'And of course you could tell them that if Alessia Cenci dies, they will never get out of prison.'

'The driver… they'll know they hit him…'

'If they ask, I am sure you would tell them he is alive. Even if he dies, you would of course tell them he is still alive. One wouldn't want them to think they had nothing to lose.'

A voice spluttered suddenly from one of the so far silent receivers, making both the engineer and Pucinelli whirl to listen. It was a woman's voice, gabbling, weeping, to me mostly unintelligible but, in gist, again plain enough.

The kidnapper's rough voice sliced in over hers, far too angry for safety, and then, in a rising wail, came a child's voice, crying, then another, calling 'Mama! Papa! Mama!'

'God,' Pucinelli said, 'children! There are children, too, in that flat.' The thought appalled him. In one instant he cared more for them than he had in five weeks for the girl, and for the first time I saw real concern in his olive face. He listened intently to the now-jumbled loud voices crowding through from the bug on the flat, a jumble finally resolving into a kidnapper yelling at the woman to give the children some biscuits to shut them up, or he personally would throw them out of the window.

The threat worked. Comparative quietness fell. Pucinelli took the opportunity to begin issuing rapid orders by radio to his own base, mentioning searchlights, negotiator, psychiatrist. Half the time he looked upward to the third floor windows, half down to the cluttered street outside: both, from our side of the van's darkly tinted glass, unrealistically dim. Not dark enough, however, for him not to catch sight of something which displeased him mightily and sent him speeding out of the van with a shout. I followed the direction of his agitation and felt the same dismay: a photographer with flashlight had arrived, first contingent of the press.

For the next hour I listened to the voices from the flat, sorting them gradually into father, mother, two children, a baby, and two kidnappers, one, the one who had talked on the telephone, a growling bass, the other a more anxious tenor.

It was the tenor, I thought, who would more easily surrender: the bass the more likely killer. Both, it appeared, were holding guns. The engineer spoke rapidly with Pucinelli, who then repeated everything more slowly for my benefit: the kidnappers had locked the mother and three children in one of the bedrooms, and had mentioned ropes tying the father. The father moaned occasionally and was told violently to stop.

In the street the crowd multiplied by the minute, every apartment block in the neighbourhood, it seemed, emptying its inhabitants to the free show on the doorstep. Even at two in the morning there were hordes of children oozing round every attempt of the carabinieri to keep them back, and everywhere, increasingly, sprouted the cameras, busy lenses pointing at the windows, now shut, where drama was the tenor kidnapper agreeing to warm the baby's bottle in the kitchen.

I ground my teeth and watched a television van pull up, its occupants leaping out with lights, cameras, microphones, setting up instant interviews, excitedly telling the world.

The kidnapping of Alessia Cenci had until that time been a piano affair, the first shock news of her disappearance having made the papers, but only briefly, for most editors all over the world acknowledged that reporters glued to such stories could be deadly. A siege in a public street, though, was everyone's fair game; and I wondered cynically how long it would be before one of the fawn-uniformed law-enforcers accepted a paper gift in exchange for the fact of just whose ransom was barricaded there, three flights up.

I found myself automatically taking what one might call a memory snapshot, a clear frozen picture of the moving scene outside. It was a habit from boyhood, then consciously cultivated, a game to while away the boring times I'd been left in the car while my mother went into shops. Across the road from the bank I used to memorise the whole scene so that if any bank robbers had rushed out I would have been able to tell the police about all the cars which had been parked nearby, make, colour, and numbers, and describe all the people in the street at the time. Get-away cars and drivers would never have got away unspotted by eagle-eyed ten-year-old Andrew D.

No bank robbers ever obliged me, nor smash-and-grabbers outside the jewellers, nor baby snatchers from prams outside the bakers, nor muggers of the elderly collecting their pensions, nor even car thieves trying for unlocked doors. A great many innocent people had come under my sternly suspicious eye - and though I'd grown out of the hope of actually observing a crime, I'd never lost the ability of freeze-frame recall.

Thus it was that from behind the darkened glass, after a few moments' concentration, I had such a sharp mind's-eye picture that I could have described with certainty the numbers of windows in the block of flats facing, the position of each of the carabinieri cars, the clothes of the television crew, the whereabouts of each civilian inside the police circle, even the profile of the nearest press photographer, who was hung with two cameras but not at that moment taking pictures. He had a roundish head with smooth black hair, and a brown leather jacket with gold buckles at the cuffs.

A buzzer sounded sharply inside the van and Pucinelli lifted the handset which was connected with the flat's telephone. The bass-voiced kidnapper, edgy with waiting, demanded action; demanded specifically a safe passage to the airport and a light aircraft to fly him, and his colleage and the ransom, out.

Pucinelli told him to wait again, as only his superiors could arrange that. Tell them to bloody hurry, said the bass. Otherwise they'd find Alessia Cenci's dead body in the morning.

Pucinelli replaced the handset, tight-lipped.

'There will be no aeroplane,' he said to me flatly. 'It's impossible.'

'Do what they want,' I urged. 'You can catch them again later, when the girl is free.'

He shook his head. 'I cannot make that decision. Only the highest authority…'

'Get it, then.'

The engineer looked up curiously at the fierceness in my voice. Pucinelli, however, with calculation was seeing that shuffling off the decision had seductive advantages, so that if the girl did die it couldn't be held to be his fault. The thoughts ticked visibly behind his eyes, coming to clarity, growing to a nod.

I didn't know whether or not his superiors would let the kidnappers out; I only knew that Enrico couldn't. It was indeed a matter for the top brass.

'I think I'll go back to the Villa Francese,' I said.

'But why?'

'I'm not needed here, but there… I might be.' I paused fractionally. 'But I came from there in this van. How, at this time of night, can I get a car to take me back there quietly?'

He looked vaguely at the official cars outside, and I shook my head. 'Not one of those.'

'Still the anonymity…?'

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