stage sooner, and in my own experience, most victims' parents did. Through outrage, anger, anxiety and grief, through guilt and hope and pain, the steps they trod were the same. I'd seen so many people in despair that sometimes a laughing face would jolt me.

The Paolo Cenci I knew was the man sitting opposite, who hadn't smiled once in my sight. He had attempted at first to put up a civilised front, but the mask had soon crumbled as he got used to my presence, and it was the raw man whose feelings and strengths and blindnesses I knew. The urban successful man-of-the-world looking out with genial wisdom from the portrait in the drawing- room, he was the stranger.

For his part, after his first blink at my not being in his own age group, he had seemed to find me compatible on all counts. His cry for help had reached our office within a day of Alessia's disappearance, and I had been on his back-doorstep the next; but forty-eight hours could seem a lifetime in that sort of nightmare and his relief at my arrival had been undemanding. He would very likely have accepted a four-armed dwarf with blue skin, not just a five-ten thin frame with ordinary dark hair and washed-out grey eyes: but he was, after all, paying for my help, and if he really hadn't liked me he had an easy way out.

His original call to our office had been brief and direct. 'My daughter has been kidnapped. I telephoned Tomasso Linardi, of the Milan Fine Leather Company, for advice. He gave me your name… he says it was your firm which got him safely home and helped the police trace the kidnappers. I need your help now myself. Please come.'

Tomasso Linardi, owner of the Milan Fine Leather Company, had himself been held to ransom two years earlier, and it wasn't surprising that Paolo Cenci should have known him, as Cenci too was in the leather business, heading a corporation with world-wide trade. Half the Italian shoes imported into England, he had told me, had passed in the uncut leather stage through his firm.

The two men incidentally had proved to have a second and more tenuous factor in common, an interest in horses; Cenci of course because of Alessia's jockeyship, and Linardi because he had owned a majority share in a racetrack. This holding in a fashionable, profit-making piece of flat land had been one of the things sold to raise his ransom, much to his sorrow when on his release he found out. In his case, although some of his kidnappers had been arrested a month later, only a small part of the million-pound ransom had been recovered. The seven million which had at first been strongly demanded would have meant losing his business as well, so on the whole he had been relieved, resigned, and obviously content enough with Liberty Market to recommend us to the next guy in trouble.

I had shared the Linardi assignment with another partner. We'd found Linardi's wife less than distraught about her husband and furious about the cost of getting him back. His mistress had wept buckets, his son had usurped his office chair, his cook had had hysterics, his sisters had squabbled and his dog had pined. The whole thing had been conducted with operatic histrionics fortissimo, leaving me finally feeling I'd been swamped by a tidal wave.

In the Villa Francese, a much quieter house, Paolo Cenci and I sat for a further half-hour, letting the brandy settle and thinking of this and that. At length, his tears long dried, he sighed deeply and said that as the day had to be faced he would change his clothes, have breakfast and go to his office. I would drive him no doubt as usual. And I could photograph the new ransom money, as before. He had been thinking, and of course I was right, it was the best chance of getting any of it back.

Breakfast in that formal household was eaten in the dining-room: coffee, fruit and hot breads against murals of shepherdesses a la Marie Antoinette.

Ilaria joined us there, silently as usual, assembling her own preferences onto her plate. Her silences were a form of aggression; a positive refusal, for instance, to say good-morning to her father even out of good manners. He seemed to be used to it, but I found it extraordinary, especially in the circumstances, and especially as it seemed there was no animosity or discord between them. Ilaria lived a privileged life which included no gainful occupation: mostly travel, tennis, singing lessons, shopping and lunches, thanks to her father's money. He gave, she received. I wondered sometimes if it was resentment at this dependency that made her so insistently refuse to acknowledge it even to the extent of behaving sweetly, but she had apparently never wanted or sought a job. Her Aunt Luisa had told me so, with approval.

Ilaria was a fresh-looking twenty-four, curved, not skinny, with brown wavy hair superbly cut and frequently shampooed. She had a habit of raising her eyebrows and looking down her nose, as she was now doing at her coffee cup, which probably reflected her whole view of life and would undoubtedly set into creases before forty.

She didn't ask if there was any news of Alessia: she never did. She seemed if anything to be angry with her sister for being kidnapped, though she hadn't exactly said so. Her reaction however to my suggestion that she should not go so predictably at set times to the tennis court and in fact should go away altogether and stay with friends, because kidnappers if feeling frustrated by delays had been known to take a second speeding-up bite at the same family, had been not only negative but. acid. 'There wouldn't be the same agonised fuss over me.'

Her father had looked aghast at her bitterness, but both she and I saw in his face that what she'd said was true, even if he had never admitted it to himself. It would in fact have been very much easier to abduct Ilaria, but even as a victim she had been passed over in favour of her famous little sister, her father's favourite. She had continued, with the same defiance as in her silences, to go at the same time to the same places, an open invitation to trouble. Cenci had begged her not to, to no avail.

I wondered if she even positively wanted to be taken, so that her father would have to prove his love for her, as for Alessia, by selling precious things to get her back.

Because she hadn't asked, we hadn't told her the evening before that that was the night for paying the ransom. Let her sleep, Cenci had said, contemplating his own wakeful ordeal and wishing to spare her. 'Perhaps Alessia will be home for breakfast,' he'd said.

He looked at Ilaria now and with great weariness told her that the hand-over had gone wrong, and that another and bigger ransom had to be collected for Alessia.

'Another…' She stared at him in disbelief, cup stopping halfway to her mouth.

'Andrew thinks we may get the first one back again, but meanwhile…' he made an almost beseeching gesture with his hand. 'My dear, we are going to be poorer. Not just temporarily, but always. This extra demand is a grave setback… I have decided to sell the house on Mikonos, but even that will not be enough. Your mother's jewels must go, also the collection of snuff boxes. The rest I must raise on the worth of this house and this estate, and if we do not recover the first ransom I will be paying interest on the loan out of the receipts from the olives, which will leave nothing over. The land I sold in Bologna to raise the first ransom will not now be providing us with any revenue, and we have to live on what I make in the business.' He shrugged slightly. 'We'll not starve. We'll continue to live here. But there are the pensions for our retired servants, and the allowances for my uncles' widows, which they live on… It is going to be a struggle, my dear, and I think you should know, and be prepared.'

She looked at him with absolute shock, and I thought that until that moment she hadn't realised that paying a ransom was a very cruel business.


I drove Cenci to his office and left him there to his telephone and his grim task with the banks. Then, changing from chauffeur's uniform into nondescript trousers and sweater, I went by bus and foot to the street where the siege might still be taking place.

Nothing, it seemed, had changed there. The dark-windowed ambulance still stood against the kerb on the far side of the road from the flats, the carabinieri's cars were still parked helter-skelter in the same positions with fawn uniforms crouching around them, the television van still sprouted wires and aerials, and a commentator was still talking into camera.

Daylight had subtracted drama. Familiarity had done the same to urgency. The scene now looked not frightening but peaceful, with figures moving at walking pace, not in scurrying little runs. A watching crowd stood and stared bovinely, growing bored.

The windows on the third floor were shut.

I hovered at the edge of things, hands in pockets, hair tousled, local paper under arm, looking, I hoped, not too English. Some of the partners in Liberty Market were stunning at disguises, but I'd always found a slouch and vacant expression my best bet for not being noticed.

After a while during which nothing much happened I wandered off in search of a telephone, and rang the number of the switchboard inside the ambulance.

'Is Enrico Pucinelli there?' I asked.

'Wait.' Some mumbling went on in the background, and then Pucinelli himself spoke, sounding exhausted.

'Andrew? Is it you?'

'Yes. How's it going?'

'Nothing has altered. I am off duty at ten o'clock for an hour.'

I looked at my watch. Nine thirty-eight. 'Where are you eating?' I said.


'OK,' I said, and disconnected.

I waited for him in the brightly-lit glass-and-tile-lined restaurant that to my knowledge served fresh pasta at three in the morning with good grace. At eleven it was already busy with early lunchers, and I held a table for two by ordering loads of fettucine that I didn't want. Pucinelli, when he arrived, pushed away his cooling plateful with horror and ordered eggs.

He had come, as I knew he would, in civilian clothes, and the tiredness showed in black smudges under his eyes and in the droop of his shoulders.

'I hope you slept well,' he said sarcastically.

I moved my head slightly, meaning neither yes nor no.

'I have had two of the top brass on my neck in the van all night,' he said. 'They can't make up their fat minds about the aeroplane. They are talking to Rome. Someone in the government must decide, they say, and no one in the government wanted to disturb his sleep to think about it. You would have gone quite crazy, my friend. Talk, talk, talk, and not enough action to shit.'

I put on a sympathetic face and thought that the longer the siege lasted, the safer now for Alessia. Let it last, I thought, until she was free. Let HIM be a realist to the end.

'What are the kidnappers saying?' I asked.

'The same threats. The girl will die if they and the ransom money don't get away safely.'

'Nothing new?'

He shook his head. His eggs came with rolls and coffee, and he ate without hurry. 'The baby cried half the night,' he said with his mouth full. 'The deep-voiced kidnapper keeps telling the mother he'll strangle it if it doesn't shut up. It gets on his nerves.' He lifted his eyes to my face. 'You always tell me they threaten more than they do. I hope you're right.'

I hoped so to. A crying baby could drive even a temperate man to fury. 'Can't they feed it?' I said.

'It has colic.'

He spoke with familiarity of experience, and I wondered vaguely about his private life. All our dealings had been essentially impersonal, and it was only in flashes, as now, that I heard the man behind the policeman.

'You have children?' I asked.

He smiled briefly, a glimmer in the eyes. 'Three sons, two daughters, one… expected.' He paused. 'And you?'

I shook my head. 'Not yet. Not married.'

'Your loss. Your gain.'

I laughed. He breathed deprecatingly down his nose as if to disclaim the disparagement of his lady. 'Girls grow into mamas,' he said. He shrugged. 'It happens.'

Wisdom, I thought, showed up in the most unexpected places. He finished his eggs as one at peace with himself, and drank his coffee. 'Cigarette?' he asked, edging a packet out of his shin pocket. 'No. I forgot. You don't.' He flicked his lighter and inhaled the first lungful with the deep relief of a dedicated smoker. Each to his own release: Cenci and I had found the same thing in brandy.

'During the night,' I said, 'did the kidnappers talk to anyone else?'

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