Heir to the Truth
This story follows Matchstick Men. Thanks to Helen for the beta!
This story has its basis in real events but it is fiction. I offer my apologies in advance to the real victims of the crashes and their families and to those who investigated the crashes. No malice is intended.
Thanks to good medical care and despite a busy schedule, Harriman Nelson physically recovered from his kidnapping and near-drowning off the coast of Norway.With his mission complete and the Norwegian scientists safely on their way home, he had time to think about what had happened to him. And he was struggling. At first he attributed his decreased attention span, lack of appetite and chain smoking to being overly tired, but three emotion-charged and petty arguments with his command officers in the span of an hour convinced him the problem ran much deeper. In an attempt to regain his mental footing he retreated to his cabin and buried his head in a pile of mission proposals. He remained at the task for many hours. When his eyes began to droop he leaned back in his chair and drifted off. Unfortunately, sleep offered him no peace.
The sensation of someone touching his arm startled him and his eyes flew open. Standing next to the door, beckoning to him, was a small blond boy wearing a heavy wool coat. He followed, but when he stepped into the corridor he found himself on a rocky beach. Far down the beach the boy was waving his arm urging him to hurry. Before he knew it he was being led uphill along a narrow path that passed between several large rock outcroppings. Stopping at a spot above what appeared to be the entrance to a large cave the boy turned and pointed out over the ocean. Though the boy continued to shake his arm and point, he could see nothing and became frustrated. Finally the sputtering of a low-flying aircraft in trouble caught his attention. He spotted the Vickers-Wellington bomber as its belly impacted the water. He felt a surge of pain, and then, nothing.
He awoke confused and disoriented. Eventually he realized he was in a cave. He looked to his left and saw the boy seated on a rock. The boy pointed towards a group of people huddled together nearby. Some of the men appeared to be hurt and others in the group were attending to them. The boy jumped up and waved for him to follow. He tried to get up to offer assistance but when he looked down he discovered he had no legs. He looked to the boy for an explanation but the little blond was nowhere in sight.
An explosion of light, brighter than any he had ever seen, temporarily blinded him. He shook his head and blinked away tears then sat up and attempted to gain his bearings. Upon realizing he was in a crate he panicked and pounded and kicked on the bars. Through squints he could make out a shadowy figure without a face standing behind a flashlight beam. He shouted at him to be let out until he was hoarse. When the figure turned and walked away he shouted to his back. As a cloak of darkness descended his prison became smaller and smaller and his breathing became increasingly difficult. No, noÖ"
With a loud moan Nelson shot up from his desk and began to pace the length ofhis cabin. With each pass his mood became darker. In a final flash of anger he reached out for his desk lamp and flung it against the bulkhead. The resulting crash brought a concerned Lt. OíBrien to his cabin door.
"Is everything all right, sir?"
"Yes, yes, just knocked this over," he growled as he picked up one of the larger pieces. "Iíll take care of it."
When OíBrien disappeared and returned a short time later with another lamp the flag officer launched into a blistering tirade. Fortunately Seaviewís captain happened by and rescued the confused lieutenant. As OíBrien scurried off down the corridor, Lee invited himself in, closing the door behind him.
"Admiral, what was that all about?" Lee asked quietly.
Nelson reached for a cigarette and lit up. "I donít have to explain myself to you."
"Iím well aware of that, sir." There was a pause. "After all that happened Iím concerned about you. And I of all people understand. If youíre willing to talk about it Iím certainly willing to listen."
When a confusing mix of emotions threatened to reveal itself Nelson turned away. He could not appear weak. He would not add to Leeís burden. He would not reveal how utterly helpless he had felt while imprisoned in a crate. He would not talk about it and reinforce those memories. He would never again give Bergan, or anyone else, that much power over him.
Lee stepped closer. "Admiral, weíll be passing close to Kings Bay in a few hours. Why donít you take time to visit? You always get a kick out of talking shop with the new submariners."
"Humphhhh. Sounds like youíre trying to get rid of me. You can forget that! I have too much work to do here."
"Two weeks ago you told me to seek out help for my issues. Maybe itís time you took your own advice." Lee made no further comment, turned and left the cabin.
The captainís quick departure both surprised and relieved Nelson. Lee could be like a dog on a bone and Nelson didnít want to be pressed on something he couldnít pin down himself. With a huff he ground out his cigarette, blindly snatched up a folder from a pile on his credenza and sat down. When he flipped open the file he spontaneously sucked in a deep breath. Staring back at him was the face of the man who had nearly drowned him. Nelson forced himself to study the photo; to trace over the lines and creases of the face and stare into the tired blue eyes. Several painful minutes later he had gained no insight into his captorís psyche. With a loud sigh he closed the file and tossed it back on the credenza.
He was about to reach into his shirt pocket for yet another cigarette when he spied a manila envelope in his letter tray. It contained the translation of Berganís manuscript. He had tucked it away out of sight under a pile of papers, and hopefully, out of mind. No such luck. A small blond that he took to be Bergan as a child was regularly appearing in his dreams. He glared at the envelope for a few minutes then picked it up and opened the clasp.
The story of Nils Bergan was a tragedy. Like many children of war he had lost his childhood. At eight he became the man of the family looking out for his mother and the other villagers and seeking food for their survival. No atrocity was hidden from him. When a British bomber crashed off the coast he worked with other villagers to protect the airmen from discovery by the Germans until they could be rescued. He also tended to their substantial burns and broken bones. He had also been wounded, though his wounds were deeper, and hidden. He carried them into adulthood.
Though deep down Nelson knew Bergan was not responsible for his actions his resentment towards the fisherman would not lessen. Reading about his captor was only making things worse. As he muttered an oath he tossed the papers onto the desk. Soon fatigue latched onto his weary bones and he closed his eyes.
The slow approach of a flickering light sent shivers up his back. He was relieved to find the shadowy figure he feared had been replaced by the boy. The blond stopped some distance away and beckoned for him to follow. He protested that he was trapped but the boyís gestures became more insistent. In frustration he pulled his legs up and kicked hard at the bars. To his surprise his legs met no resistance so he scrambled to his feet.
He followed the boy out of the cave and in a flash he was on a very familiar beach; one that was different than where he had been before. The boy scurried off, reappearing on top of a very large but smooth rock outcrop. When the boy began to point he looked out over the ocean. He stared but could see nothing but water and a few birds. He turned back around to protest but found the boy gone. Suddenly he heard the loud drone of an airplane in trouble. He turned and stood in horror as a jetliner cracked up in midair. Soon large pieces of the fuselage rained down and landed at his feet. He tried to move to help look for survivors but he was held back. He looked down and saw that his feet were stuck in the wet sand. He struggled mightily to remove them but found the harder he tried the deeper he sunk. He looked around frantically for someone to pull him out but there was no one around.
Feeling a hand on his arm he jumped. He was once again in his cabin and the boy was standing next to the door to the head. Curious, he walked over. At the boyís urging he looked into the mirror. Looking back at him was his captor. He quickly closed his eyes, squeezing them as tightly as he could. When he again opened them he saw only his own reflection and he let out the breath. He felt a tug at his arm and looked down. His diminutive guide had been replaced by a small red-head with freckles. The boy took his hand and led him into the corridor. He found he was again on a beach with waves lapping at his feet. Suddenly a womanís large brimmed pink hat floated into view. He watched it until it was within reach and he picked it up. It was familiar, and haunting. "Mother? Mother, where are you?"
"Mother?" Nelson awoke with a start. He was drenched in sweat, and there was a notable shake to his hands. Moving immediately into command mode he stood up and surveyed his domain. A sudden wave of dizziness forced him to hold onto the desk until it passed. Eventually he was able to move his feet and make his way over to the head. There he grabbed a facecloth, wet it and rubbed it over his face. Only then would he look into the mirror. He saw only his own reflection but was certain he had added at least a dozen more wrinkles since he had last shaved.
"Just a dream," he said aloud, "just a damn dream." Nelson threw down the facecloth and ran a hand through his hair. A sudden knock caused him to jump. He rushed over and angrily snatched open the door. "What now?"
Chip stood there holding an envelope. He held it out. "Sorry, sir, we just surfaced and received this message from the Institute. They indicated itís urgent but Iím afraid it is several hours old."
"Did you read it?" Nelson accused.
Chip shook his head. "No, sir, they also said it was personal."
Nelson snatched the note and with barely a nod he closed the door in the execís face. He tore into the envelope and scowled as he read the missive from his sister, Edith.
"Harry, I know youíre busy but I was contacted by a journalist who claimed he knew the real reason behind Mother and Fatherís crash. He wouldnít tell me what he had but he made threats to print the information if you donít speak with him. Please contact me at your earliest. I need to know what to do. With love, E."
Nelson didnít need to ask who sent the message to his sister. He had received a similar one two days earlier, along with several photos. He was accustomed to threats and typically turned them over to Institute security or the Navy to handle. This one was different; it was highly personal and opened up old wounds concerning the deaths of his parents. Hoping to put a quick end to the threats he had sent a message to the blackmailer requesting a meeting but the man was unwilling to meet with him in person. What Nelson hated most was lack of control and once again he was not in control of his situation.
Stepping over to his safe he removed and unfolded a piece of paper. He stared at it for a few minutes, refolded it and flicked his finger on it several times before tossing it back inside. He secured the safe and reached for the doorknob. He jumped when he came face to face with Will Jamison, the boatís CMO. "What do you want?" he asked as he stuffed the paper into his pocket.
"Admiral, Iím here for your blood pressure check. It will only take a minute."
"I donít have time for this!"
"Iím sorry, Admiral. You agreed to avisit once a day and itís been two."
Not only for the well-being of the crew but to collect data for his research, Nelson had established a policy of requiring all involved in diving accidents to have routine long-term monitoring of vital signs. Begrudgingly he gave in. "Oh, all right. But make it quick!"
As Jamison set to rolling up his patientís sleeve he began to quiz Nelson about his general health. The intrusion did not go over well.
"Are you done?" Nelson snarled.
"Just about, Admiral," he said as he folded his stethoscope. "There is just one other thing."
Nelson glared at the physician.
Jamison was undeterred. "I donít consider myself a philosopher; I just have a pretty good handle on what makes men fit for duty. Every man carries around a mental duffel bag where he shoves his bad memories and experiences. He can go through life stuffing and stuffing but at some point, that bag gets full. Thatís when he needs to spend some time clearing it out. Itís better than any prescription I can hand out and the effects are longer lasting."
Nelsonís temper flared white-hot. He had heard the speech before. "Thatís enough, Doctor!"
Nelson would never admit to the CMO that his comment had made a direct hit to his psyche. He quickly lit up, and alternating between puffs and paces he considered how he would empty his bag. By the end of his third cigarette he had outlined a plan. Though he could not fix all his problems right away he would first take care of the man that threatened to destroy what was left of his family.
Lee was roused from sleep by a familiar lurch of the boat; one that meant the Flying Sub had left its berth. He quickly sat up and mashed the button to the intercom over his bunk. "Conn, this is the captain. Report."
The voice of Lieutenant Cermak crackled over the speaker. "Conn here, Captain. The admiral just left in FS-1. He left a message for you here, sir."
Lee furrowed his brow. "Iíll be right there." He dressed and arrived in the conn in short order. After stopping briefly at each station he proceeded to the plot table. "Everything in order, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir," Cermak responded crisply. "Weíre again proceeding at half-flank." The officer picked up an envelope from the table and handed it to the captain. "Your message, sir."
Lee nodded. "Very well. Advise me immediately if the admiral calls in." He stepped into the nose before opening the envelope and pulling out a single piece of note paper. Like most of the admiralís messages this one was straight to the point.
"Lee, I have some personal business to attend to in Rome. Iíve taken Chip with me. If I need anything Iíll be in contact. Proceed to Santa Barbara as planned. Nelson."
Lee grimaced. He wished Nelson had provided more information. Though the older man claimed otherwise, his recent ordeal had profoundly affected him. Lee knew through his own experiences that it would take time to heal but in the meantime he was distracted and vulnerable. At least the admiral had taken Chip along. If anyone, his friend would be able to roll with whatever punches Nelson might throw, or deal with those thrown at him.
No one was more surprised than Chip Morton when he was ordered by the admiral to grow a beard, dress in civilian clothes and accompany him on an as yet undisclosed mission to Italy. It was a rare occasion for him to be chosen over Lee to leave the boat. In this instance Lee hadnít even been apprised of the details of their operation and that concerned him. He considered a number of reasons for the decision, finally settling on one. Most likely Nelson was concerned for Leeís health and leaving Lee in charge of the boat meant he was also protected from the clutches of ONI. That thought made Chip grin.
The first half hour of their flight on FS-1 passed in total silence. When his craft was somewhere near Bermuda, Nelson set the autopilot, unbuckled his harness and reached for his briefcase. He removed the file folders and handed the stack to Chip. "Read those. Iíll explain what this is about when youíre done."
Chip acknowledged the order then flipped open the top file and scanned the first page. He quickly realized what was in the folders. While Seaview was being constructed he had been privileged to learn a good bit about Harriman Nelsonís past, including how he and his sister had inherited many millions of dollars of the Nelson shipbuilding fortune when their parents had died in a plane crash. Chip had also known that the admiral had used much of that inheritance to have Seaview built. What Chip had not known were the details behind the jetliner crash that had killed the Nelsons. He was now reading much of the technical information that had been kept from the public in regards to that crash.
The Nelsonís plane, a de Havilland Comet leased from the British Overseas Airways Corporation by South African Airways, was headed from London to Johannesburg with a stop in Rome to refuel. Thirty five minutes after takeoff, all contact with the craft was lost. Debris and some human remains were found near the island of Stromboli off the coast of Sicily. Because of the depth of the water at that location the structural parts of the plane and most of the bodies, including those of the Nelsons, were never recovered. Conclusions as to the cause of the crash were largely based on previous crashes by Comets, the most recent occurring just two months prior. That plane had taken off from the same airport, fueling speculation of sabotage. Much testing was done and ultimately the boards that examined the crash determined that structural failure of the fuselage at the corners of the square windows had caused the break-ups.
Chip pored over the reports, diagrams and photos trying to absorb all salient details. By the time he was finished, he had a clear understanding of the crash investigation but still no clue about his role in the current mission. He turned to the admiral. "Sir, Iím done."
Nelson once again set the auto pilot and turned to the blond. "Well, what do you think?"
Chip hesitated, unsure just what the admiral wanted to hear. "I know the technology for examining jet crashes was in its infancy butÖ it appears to me that the investigation took a long time. Iím sure that made it difficult."
"Forget about that. Based on whatís there would you be satisfied with those findings?"
"Too long in coming, but they make sense. Do you have doubts about them, sir?"
"No, no doubts." Nelson turned to look out the window and pretended to be making adjustments to the controls. He eventually turned back. "I was out to sea when it happened. I had to travel to England for a coronerís inquest in absentia. When I made it back to Boston I had to take care of Edith, make arrangements to sell my fatherís company, deal with the inheritance and tie up all the other loose ends. At that same time the heat was on to launch the Nautilus. All that didnít give me much time to follow-up on the crash. I had to trust the work of the investigators."
"So youíve decided to do it now."
"It was decided for me. Iím being blackmailed, again. A professional muckraker that likely wants a large sum of money for his silence. Heís contacted Edith to put the pressure on. Iím not worried about me but I donít want Edith harmed or to have my parentís reputations smeared."
"Admiral, why did this blackmailer target you?"
"As you saw in the reports, sabotage was discounted by the investigative board but the conspiracy theories wonít die. In that era only wealthy businessmen and heads of state could afford to fly jets, so it was a good bet that someone notable and rich was on each flight. One theory floated was that certain passengers were Nazi sympathizers helping members of the Reich escape. Another was that someone on board my parentís flight was ferrying new technology to our enemies. That one got a lot of press coverage. Due to my fatherís occupation he was labeled by some as a spy. Fortunately, all the finger pointing died away, at least until now."
"What have you found out about this Aldo Moretti?"
"He writes for some rag paper and apparently wanders around looking for well-known people to extort." Nelson reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph and showed it to Chip. "Thatís him. Ironically his home base is near Ciampino airport where three of the Comets that crashed made a stopover. He refuses to meet with me alone. Chip, I need to bring him out of the shadows and find out exactly what he knows. Thatís where you come in."
"Sir, you want me to talk to him?"
"Not exactly." He pointed to the folders. "I had you read all that because I want you to go into Ciampino and see who knows what about the crash. That may also tell us how extensive Morettiís reach might be."
"And I would draw less attention."
"Probably not." Nelson hesitated. "Not when you tell them youíre my illegitimate son and youíre after your part of the inheritance."
Chip had been given only a day to ditch his finely-honed military faÁade and become someone who didnít exist. After settling into a hotel just south of Rome he had spent several hours roughening his appearance. He also practiced walking with a more relaxed posture. The casual clothing helped with that part. Eliminating all the Navy jargon from his vocabulary proved a greater challenge. One slip could give him away and he didnít want to disappoint the admiral. Chip realized that the success of his mission would hinge more on the efficiency of the grapevine in the town of Ciampino than on his acting job. With a final shake of his hair and a quick glance into the mirror he grabbed his jean jacket,shoved a handful of change into the pocket and stepped outside to summon a cab.
Eying the three taxis queued up to the curb in front of the hotel he sidled up to the one with ample leg room. "CíŤ qualcuno che lei parla inglese?" He stumbled through the words, making it quite apparent he was a foreigner.
"Si, signore, I speak English."
"I need to find the office of some newspaper called Le notizie del giorno in Ciampino. You know it?"
"Si, signore, I know it. I am from Ciampino."
Chip couldnít believe his luck and climbed in and settled back in the seat.
The cab had barely left the curb when the driver launched into a chamber of commerce style presentation for Ďhisí town. "Julius Caesar was from what is now Ciampino. St. Francis of Assisi visited. The village, it was named after a scientist, he invented, how do you say, the thing that measures the stars?"
"SeÖ" Chip caught himself. Revealing that he knew what a sextant was could be a dead giveaway. "Not sure."
"Hmm, never you mind. He was a great scientist, Ciampino. Our city, it has many beautiful churches. You must visit the Chiesa del Sacro Cuora di Gesý. It is on the Piazza della Pace. I will take you there if you like."
"Not right now. Maybe after I finish my business."
"So you are interested in the, how do you sayÖgossip?"
Chip studied the cabbieís face in the mirror. "What do you mean?"
"Le notizie del giorno, it is very much famous for the gossip, no?"
"I suppose it is now. It used to be a good newspaper. Iíve heard they had some of the best coverage of the Comet jetliner crashes back in fifty-four. Thatís why Iím here, to get as much information about the crashes that I can. Hey, youíre from Ciampino. Do you know anyone who worked on the rescues or on the investigations who might be willing to talk to me about it?"
"No, signore, I cannot help you with that," he answered coolly.
"No offense, but you seem to be old enough. The crashes had to be big news when they happened. There were a lot of big shots on the planes. You sure you donít know anyone? I could use the help."
"I said I did not, signore."
The cabbieís hostile attitude spoke volumes. Duly warned, Chip changed the subject. "Have you ever heard of the famous American admiral, Harriman Nelson?"
"Si, I have heard of him. He has that big submarine."
"Yeah, well I just found out he had a fling with my mother and heís my dad. His parents died on the second plane and Iím trying to find out as much as I can about them. Maybe see if they knew anything about me. Maybe get my hands on some of their fortune."
"Hmmm. Here is your stop."
The cab pulled up to a single story stucco building in an older, seedier part of town. A faded sign over the door indicated to Chip that he had was in the right place. "You will wait for me?" he asked as he handed over payment.
The cabbie hesitated. "Si, signore."
As Chip stepped through the door he was greeted by the ringing of a bell and a friendly brunette.
"Ciao, come posso aiutarla?"
"CíŤ qualcuno che lei parla inglese?"
"Solo un minute mi metterÚ il mio papŗ." In a minute she returned with a stocky older man with graying temples. "I speak some English," he announced with a lyrical accent.
"Iím trying to find some information on an old news story. Do you have any microfilm or old copies of your papers from 1954? Specifically regarding the crash of the Comet jetliner in April?"
Father and daughter exchanged glances. "So sorry. Years ago we had a fire. There are no copies."
"Someone had to keep copies. A library maybe?"
"No, no library here. It is best for you to go into Roma. Perhaps they have what you need there."
Chip ignored the brush-off. "I really need to find out everything I can about the crash and all the people involved. There could be some money in it for whoever helps me out."
"As I said, we have nothing. Much bigger papers in Roma. If there is nothing else I must go back to work."
Chip feigned frustration. "Arenít there any reporters still around from that time?"
"No, signore, there is no one here to help you. I must insist you go. Ciao."
"All right, all right. Iíll try Rome. Grazie."
Having lit his second fire of the day, Chip stepped outside. It was no surprise that his cab had disappeared and no others were in sight.
It took ten minutes of brisk walking to reach the center of Ciampino. He studied the row of buildings and soon spied one with a sign out front that read Ďbiblioteca.í "No library, huh?" he grunted as he ascended the steps to the second level.
The petite librarian spoke English and once he explained what he was looking for she agreed to assist him. The caveat was he would need to return the following morning to get the information. "I really need it today," he pleaded.
"I have much to do today and it will take a little time to find something that old. I am sorry."
"Grazie, whatever you do will help. Could you point me to the vital records office? I need to get death certificates of the crash victims."
"Registri dello stato civile is in Marino. Center of town."
"Ah, okay. Grazie, signorina, I will see you tomorrow."
With the first parts of the plan in place it was time to update the admiral. To avoid eavesdroppers Chip headed for a pay phone in the piazza. "Three sales calls but nothing so far. No sign of our old customer. I could use a beer. Iím going to visit that old watering hole later."
"I still have that appointment to keep but Iíll be back before you go. If you can, find out if he has any new contacts."
"Will, do. Later."
A quick glance around revealed no one nearby. For a tourist area, the plaza seemed eerily devoid of activity. Chip checked his watch. He had plenty of time to make it to Marino and back before making a visit to a cafe notorious as the townís center of gossip. That is, if he could find another cab.
With a number of minor issues about the crash investigation still niggling at him Nelson made arrangements to see Ross Sylvestri, a failure analysis engineer and an old friend. Sylvestri was in Italy on a Navy contract and agreed to meet him at La Sapienza, Romeís premier university. Convening outside the aerospace engineering department the men greeted each other cordially.
"Ross, itís been a few years, thanks for coming."
"Youíre quite welcome, Harry. I must say I was intrigued by your phone call. Having issues with Seaview or is it something new youíre testing?"
"Not Seaview. This something is personal." Nelson glanced around. "Iím not sure you were aware but my parents were aboard the Comet that crashed off Stromboli."
The engineer grimaced. "I remember now. Iím sorry, Harry."
Nelson nodded. "Itís been a number of years, but there are still a few issues I want put to rest." He flipped open his briefcase and pulled out three photos. "I know you studied the crash. Did you ever see these?"
Sylvestri took and studied the photos of three pieces of metal. "Looks like explosion damage to me. Iíve never seen these that I remember, but like you said, it was years ago."
"Those are supposedly of pieces of the jet taken by some fishermen but never published or referenced in the reports. Someone is trying to say they point to a bomb and a cover-up involving my parents. I need to disprove they belonged to that plane."
"And you want me to look into it?"
"Iíd appreciate it. But donít tell anyone why you need it."
"Of course, Harry. Iíll see what I can do."
"Iím afraid there is another issue I need your help with. I want to know a little more about the issues that initially delayed the flight and the working environment at the airport. As I understand it, one of the engineers who looked at the plane is now on the faculty here. You know Giuseppe Díarco?"
"So thatís why weíre here! I know him, seems like a good man."
"So you think heíll cooperate?"
"With the famous Harriman Nelson, Iíd bet on it."
Díarco was in the midst of a lecture on measuring the flexibility of metals when the men arrived. He had etched out several complex formulas on the chalkboard and stood back to check his work when he spied his visitors. He glanced at the clock, dismissed the class and rushed over to greet his engineer friend. When Sylvestri introduced Nelson the professorís eyes brightened. As was customary, the three spent several minutes on introductions and small talk before bringing up the subject of his visit.
"So you see I want to find out all I can about the crash. Not just the technical data but the activity behind the scenes."
Sadness filled the professorís eyes. "It was an inevitable tragedy. I am sorry. Let us go up to my office."
Díarcoís office was small but afforded him a magnificent view of Rome. While the professor sought out pertinent documents from his files, Nelson and Sylvestri stared out the window at the Colosseum. "Impressive."
"So is the view from your boat."
Nelson grinned. At that moment Díarco returned with two pieces of paper. "The bolts were AN certified and made of nickel alloy. I am sure. The threads as designed were a bit short, which would explain the looseness. At our insistence the technicians changed all the bolts on both wings, replacing them with ones with longer threads. In the end no one ever saw the plane again, so no one can say the bolts were at issue. Iím sorry I cannot provide more information."
"And the issues with the fuel gauge?"
"It was working intermittently before it arrived in Rome. There was nothing we could see that was a problem when it took off."
Nelsonís next questions would prove more difficult. "Was there any indication that anyone connected with the flight was somehow involved in tampering?"
As expected, the question upset Díarco and he raised his voice and waved his hands defensively. "I must remind you that the bolts were loose when the jet arrived in Rome. All of the technicians, both British and Italians were taken in and questioned. TheyÖ we all wanted to know what happened but the investigators would tell us nothing. Most of the men on the maintenance crews eventually lost their jobs, though nothing was ever proven against them."
Nelson looked directly at Díarco. "I apologize for implying that you or anyone working with you was at fault. You must be aware that ground crews often know a great deal about a planeís true condition and problems surrounding it. Was anyone expressing particular concern about resuming that flight?"
Díarco shook his head vigorously. "If anyone had said anything, even if it was speculation, we would have examined the problem. Engineers ordered many changes after the January crash and we saw to it that the changes were made. Sadly we knew nothing about the effects of metal fatigue due to repeated pressurization. No one did."
"I am certainly familiar with that issue." Nelson wanted more information on the human element, but decided the defensive Díarco might not be the best source. After giving his regards to the professor he and Sylvestri left the building.
"Do you know anyone out of Ciampino who could provide a list of all the ground crew? Not just the British, but the Italians? Iíd also like to know about security arrangements. The official report was vague at best."
"What reason would I give for asking for decades old security information?"
"Tell them youíre researching how to best do an accident investigation for your doctorate. Tell them youíre making a training film. Tell them anything!" Nelson cocked his head. "After exposing corruption in Venice last year Iím not one of the Italian governmentís favorite people."
"Thatís a big challenge but okay, Harry, Iíll see what I can do. Do you want to get dinner?"
"Sorry, I have a man on a mission and I need to back him up. Iíll contact you this time tomorrow."
"Good enough. And good luck."
Chip easily located the registry office but was disappointed when he was shown the regulation that allowed only immediate family members to request death certificates or autopsy results. He tried to explain his circumstances but the official was unbowed. He was about to walk out when a female clerk waved him over and commented that there seemed to be a rash of inquiries on the same information.
"Who? Other family members?"
"One of them was a doctor," she whispered.
"The doctor of autopsia."
"Pathologist? When was he here? And can I have a name?"
"A few days ago. I can only say his name was on one of the certificates. Perhaps he can assist you." The clerk jotted the name on a piece of paper and handed it to the blond. "He was unfamiliar to me and I had no need to collect his address."
A stern look from the lead clerk silenced the woman and she shrugged.
"Okay, thanks. Do you have a Rome telephone directory?"
The clerk reached under the counter and pulled out the huge volume. After thumbing through it and finding no listing for the pathologist, Chip sighed and slid it back. It was times like this that he wished he had Leeís connections. He thanked the clerk again and tucked the slip of paper into his pocket.
Long shadows over the central plaza signaled that it was time to return to Ciampino. As he neared the taxi stand the drivers of the first two cars hopped into their cabs, glaring at him as they sped off. When the third taxi did a U-turn right in front of him, he was certain word had gotten out about his mission and it was going to be a trick to get to his destination on time.
Opting next for the train, Chip sat on a bench waiting for it to arrive. As he mulled over what he had accomplished he toyed with the idea of contacting someone for a little help. Spying a payphone nearby, he strolled over and slipped a coin into the slot. He reached the overseas operator, and with some struggle he managed to place the call to the Nelson Instituteís head of security. "Jay, itís Chip. Donít ask any questions, but find out as much as you can about Öa FranÖ"
Telephones in Italy were notorious for poor service but the sudden silence troubled the security officer. "Chip, you broke up. Chip, Chip, you still there? Chip?"
With the darkness affording him a bit of anonymity, Nelson parked his car a short distance from the cafť in Ciampino and awaited the arrival of Chip, the reporter or both. The meeting spot was a popular one; despite the chill in the air, locals from all social circles paraded past him and took seats on the patio. The music emanating from inside was soon drowned out by their boisterous chatter. Nelson had spent time in Italy and knew the socializing could go on for hours. As he settled back in his seat he reminisced about those days past. He and his first love had met in Naples, when both were on extended family vacations. Though teenagers they had not participated in typical teen activities. They had spent their days arguing buoyancy theory among other esoteric subjects while sitting in a cafť very much like the one he was observing.
A sudden ruckus nearby startled Nelson from his reverie. He checked his watch and immediately became concerned. Over an hour and a half had passed and there had been no sign of his normally punctual exec. Giving Chip the benefit of the doubt he maintained his cover for an additional hour. When neither the officer nor their quarry had made an appearance, he decided to take action. He slipped from the car and sauntered up to the patio and waded into the crowd.
Posing as another journalist, Nelson inquired of the whereabouts of the reporter. Several people told him they had not seen him but it was not uncommon for him to be gone for weeks when chasing a story. Another joked that Moretti never missed an opportunity to imbibe and was probably sitting in another bar somewhere. Frustrated, Nelson next quizzed the bartender. As the man polished his wine glasses he eyed the American suspiciously.
"I know who you are," he said in stilted English. "You are Nelson. If I were you, I would leave and not return."
"You must have me mistaken for someone else."
"I do not believe so." Reaching under the bar he pulled out a newspaper, slapped it down and pointed to a photo of Nelson and Seaview near the bottom of the page. "Aldo said to watch for you. He says you have threatened him."
It was a pain to be famous. "All right, you have me. But you have the story all wrong. He threatened me and he seems afraid to do it in person. I have no problem talking to him here, in public. Why donít you call him and tell him Iím looking for him?"
"I cannot do that. As I said before you need to go. I will not make certain you will be safe here."
Just then two toughs nearly twice Nelsonís size came up from behind and grabbed his arms, lifting him off the floor. He struggled but eventually shook them off. "Iím staying at the Piazza de la Armonia. Tell him it would be in his best interest to make arrangements to meet me there." Nelson turned to find all eyes in the crowd fixed on him. He adjusted his dinner jacket then pushed past the burly guardians. He was not surprised when they and several patrons followed him all the way to his car and stood there until he sped away.
Once back at his hotel Nelson immediately checked for messages. There was only one; from Jay Gordon at the Institute. He removed the satellite telephone from its hiding place and within minutes he was in touch with Gordon. Nelson scowled when he learned of the interrupted call with Chip. It practically confirmed that something had happened to him.
"Did he say where he was or what he was doing?"
"No, sir, but the call was collect from Marino. The only information he was able to relay was the name Fran. Thatís when we were interrupted. I couldnít tell if that was a first or last name."
"All right, Iím heading there. Iíll have the sat phone with me. If you hear from him tell him to call me immediately."
Nelson had few options and few leads. With practically all of Ciampinoís residents professing to be friends of the reporter, he was unlikely to find any allies. It was also unknown which local authorities might also be involved in the blackmail scheme and Chipís disappearance. All he could do would be to go to where Chip was last seen and hope he had left a trail.
Chip was feeling lightheaded and it was a struggle to breathe. When he did manage to snatch a breath he sucked in an ungodly stench. His first thought was that he had been buried alive and he panicked. In an effort to stave off a paralyzing attack he forced himself to focus on breath control using the same techniques used to teach novice divers. With the darkness temporarily pushed back he was able to make a few observations. He was upright and he could hear music playing somewhere outside his prison. He could also hear occasional interruptions for ads and decided the music came from a radio. So he wasnít below ground after all. But where was he? In a trash disposal unit? In the bilges of a boat? At a slaughterhouse? Wherever it was it didnít look like he would escape it on his own, but he had to try. Able to move only his feet he kicked out, impacting a hard surface. He hoped the door or whatever it was would spring open but his repeated efforts were futile.
He was still under the influence of whatever drug they had given him. The bitter taste still lingered in his parched mouth. He tried to swallow, and to roll his tongue around to generate moisture but nothing worked. In his weakened state he began to second guess every action he had taken. His last recollection had him standing on the train platform near the telephones but there had been no one within a hundred feet of him.Had he momentarily let down his guard allowing someone to get too close? Had he let someone overhear his conversations allowing them time to set a trap? Had he underestimated the admiralís blackmailers? Had he felt overly safe waltzing into public places? Had he somehow ignored the obvious?
To regain control of his thoughts Chip bit down on his lip until it bled freely. He knew if he was to survive he would have to focus on something besides his predicament. He listened for a familiar tune on the radio and drifted off to a time he spent on an island off of Lake Ontario with a very close friend. He was so deep in concentration when he heard a soft tap on the box he thought it was part of his illusion.
"Are you alive in there?"
This time Chip didnít care if he was hallucinating. He kicked out an SOS. When he heard no response he kicked again. Then harder, and longer.
"That is enough, they will hear you," warned the muffled female voice. "I must tell you something."
It seemed like hours before the woman continued. "I will let you out but if I do you have to promise me that you will put things back as they are so they think you are still inside. Then you must forget about any inheritance and leave Italy and forget everything you saw."
Chip was in no position to argue. He kicked again. "Yes, yes," he repeated hoarsely.
The clatter of chains signaled freedom was at hand. When it was followed by a period of silence panic again reared its head. Chip kicked and kicked and leaned against the door. This time it gave way and both he and the wood plank fell to the floor. When he got his wits about him he realized he was alone and lying in the bed of a box truck. Aided only by a sliver of light emanating from the bottom of the rolling door he scrambled around and located the plank and two sets of chains with padlocks. He stood and lifted the plank but before replacing it he decided to find out what had been in the crate with him. Needing more light he leaned the plank against the wall and stepped over to the door and raised it a few more inches. When he returned to the crate he wished he hadnít been so curious. An uncontrollable urge came over him and he vomited.
Chip scanned the truck looking for something to clean up his telltale mess. Locating several pieces of cardboard he ripped them, scooped up the material and shoved it and the makeshift tools into the crate. He then quickly reassembled and secured it. He leaned down and peered out the door opening. Seeing no one he raised the door just enough to slip out. As he landed he was caught in the glare of headlights. With his heart racing he took off running.
Nelson couldnít believe his eyes. He had driven directly to Marino and for hours he had cruised the streets looking for the missing man. Now, there he was, darting across the road less than a hundred feet in front of him! Chip could run like a gazelle, so rather than try and catch up and risk exposing them both, he drove on past, circled around, and pulled over several blocks away in the direction Chip had fled. Knowing Chip would never come out of hiding unless he was certain it was him he jumped from the car and called out his execís name several times. With time of the essence he reached into the car and pressed the horn sounding out a very simple message using Morse code; "Chip, time to eat".
Nelson looked around for any signs of activity but the entire industrial district appeared to be locked down tight. Some five minutes later he reached in to repeat the signal but stopped when he heard the roar of a motor headed in his direction. He shut off the lights, closed the door and slipped into the shadows. The roar became louder and soon a box truck like the one where he had seen Chip appeared in his view. As it approached his car it slowed, allowing him time to make out some of the markings on the side of the cab. Fortunately for both him and Chip the truck continued on.
Nelson slid into the car and repeated his earlier message. He didnít have to wait long for a reply. From somewhere nearby he heard a series of metallic taps. When they spelled out "I want ziti" he grinned, stepped from the car and headed towards the sound. He found the disheveled blond shivering in the doorway of the neighboring building. Nelson grimaced when he caught a whiff of the exec.
"Apologies, sir, I didnít have time to change," said Chip as he broke into a grin.
Nelson chuckled. "First things first. Letís get out of here!"
When they were out of the vicinity of Marino, Nelson pulled over and placed a call to Ross Sylvestri, who was temporarily residing in a villa outside the U.S. naval base at Gaeta. As would be expected at two in the morning, the engineer was both groggy and grumpy.
"Harry? Do you know what time it is?"
"I do, Ross, trust me, I do. I need a big favor."
"Iím sorry, but yes. I need access to a shower, clothes and food for a friend. And I need a large plastic bag."
"What have you gotten yourself into Harry? And what are you getting me into?"
"Itís not as bad as you think, Ross. Iíll explain when we get there. Whatís the address?"
When the pair arrived at the villa, Sylvestri was waiting at the door with a bag. It only took one sniff for him to appreciate the problem.
"I donít want to stink up your house. If I can get a couple of towels and some soap Iíll wash up a little outside first," offered Chip.
"Be right back." When the engineer returned with the items he pointed to a secluded area behind some shrubbery. "Youíll find a hose over near the fountain. Leave the clothes. Iíll take care of them tomorrow."
As Chip took care of business, Sylvestri ushered Nelson inside. He poured a glass of wine for himself and offered one to Nelson. The admiral declined and the two took seats on the heated veranda. "Donít tell me he murdered someone and you want me to help you get rid of the evidence."
"Okay, I wonít tell you that." Under the engineerís dubious gaze Nelson laid out the scenario. "It appears someone is attempting to get rid of anyone who asks questions about the crash. Every person Chip spoke to about it clammed up or denied any knowledge of the crash. Then out of nowhere someone grabbed him and shoved him into in a truck with obvious plans to get rid of him."
"What makes you think it was related to the crash and not something else?"
"For one, the person that helped him escape told him to forget about his inheritance and to leave Italy. We used the crash and my inheritance as bait todraw out those with information on the blackmail plot. And before you ask, no, I donít think they were all involved in blackmail. Iíve met Morettiís friends and I donít think they had a clue about all he was up to. Thereís something else more sinister going on. Frankly, I can think of only one reason that a decades-old crash would agitate so many or cause them to kill."
"Money, the root of all evil."
There was a pause in the conversation as the engineer took in what he had been told. He took a long sip of wine. "Youíll need more than your manís kidnapping to prove a conspiracy."
"I agree. What if I told you the reporter who was blackmailing me was in a bag inside a crate in the same truck where Chip was held?"
"Hmmmmm. That puts a new complexion on things. Did you go to the authorities?"
"And tell them what? The only facts I have are a kidnapping and a dead man, neither of which I can prove. Around here that would get me arrested. I need more."
"So what do you want me to do now?"
"If you donít mind I would like to use your place as my base of operations." Nelson chuckled. "And right now you can get my XO some clothes."
"XO?" Sylvestri turned around. When he caught sight of a shivering Chip he ushered him upstairs to the shower. "The gardener is about your size. He keeps a change of clothes in the shed. Iíll get them."
Nelson checked his watch then went outside to contact Jay Gordon. He informed him Chip had been found safe then provided him the registration number of the truck involved in his kidnapping and the name of the pathologist who had visited the registry office.
"Sir, Lee called about an hour ago to ask if I had heard from you. I told him about Chip. Do you want me to contact him again and let him know the good news?"
"No, no, Iíll do it. Get back to me as soon as you have that information."
Fortunately for Nelson Seaview was on the surface maintaining radio and satellite contact and in no time he was speaking to Lee. The captain expressed relief that both his friends were safe. Nelson thanked him and apologized for leaving him in the dark but he didnít bother to provide details. "Frankly the reason I came here doesnít matter anymore. Our mission has changed. Hereís what I want you to doÖ"
"If youíll excuse me, Admiral, Iím going outside to get some fresh air."
Though Seaviewís exec was as tough as nails and a consummate stoic, he had not shaken off his latest experience. It didnít help that he still held the smell of the dead man in his nostrils and the taste in his mouth. He knew his unusual lack of appetite would alert the admiral that all was not well. He hated revealing emotions to anyone and to Nelson, in particular. When the admiral came up behind him he ducked his head. He could feel the older manís gaze and it was painful.
"Since Iím convinced that whatever this is about had nothing to do with my parents and since the blackmailer is gone you wonít need to do the undercover act anymore. You can take FS-1 back to Santa Barbara. Iíll get a commercial flight."
"You donít really believe this is over do you, sir?"
"No, canít say I do."
"In that case, you might need my help and Iíd like to see it through."
"Okay, but anytime you want out, give the word." Nelson turned and walked off.
Chip stood and stared at the sunny hillsides covered with grapevines and breathed in the crisp fall air. The climate was very similar to Santa Barbaraís and he tried to imagine he was there, enjoying a quiet evening on his deck. At first he struggled against the encroaching smells but eventually the diversion worked; when he next checked his watch nearly thirty minutes had passed. He snapped back to duty andwalked briskly back to the villa. There he found Nelson on the patio lighting up.
"Sir, what do we really know about Moretti?"
Nelson took a long draw. "I scanned some of his recent work. He had no problem finding sordid stories or people to exploit. He even went after a group of nuns. Surprisingly heís worked at the same place for nearly twenty years and from what I can tell heís managed to avoid any serious repercussions for his mudslinging. No time in prison, no successful lawsuits. Why, what are you thinking?"
"The fact that he has lived here a long time stirring up mud yet no one has touched him. And itís not like they couldnít find him. He ate and drank at the same place every day. That would make him an easy target. Then he gets involved in a very old story, one that broke before he started working at the paper, and he gets killed. That makes me think he stumbled onto something really big. Something related to the crash."
"He was a vicious writer. He could have finally crossed the wrong person."
"I agree with you there but why was I a threat? All we had in common was the crash, and you. Sir, I had this thoughtÖ"
"Is it possible Moretti had no information on your parents at all? What if the wrong people found out what he had discovered and he used threats and a couple of fake photos to get help or even money from you? You, being the heir with the most pull and with the biggest bank account."
Nelson opened his mouth to respondbut changed his mind and took a long draw from his cigarette instead. Then another, and another. He also repeated the message he had received from Moretti in his head. There were no hints in the note, only a threat to publish the information. "You may be right, Chip. I admit I might not have looked at this objectively. So what youíre suggesting is my parents were the hook to get me here to help Moretti out of a fix, and instead I got him killed."
Chip shook his head. "No, sir, Itís a sure bet that was already in the works. Maybe he stumbled on something bigger than the local political scandals he was used to and couldnít handle it. Something that would have brought down some pretty big fish."
"Hmmmmm." Silence followed as Nelson mulled over Chipís scenario. A signal from the sat phone interrupted his reverie. It was Lee with some surprising news. "Nothing? No oneís ever heard of him?"
"No, sir. I tried my connections and ONIís using all possible variations of the name. None of the licensing boards or registries show the name Francisco Gapaldi. I even contacted the Brits and had them pull the documents related to the crash. They had no record of the name, either. Theyíre still putting together a list of names of people who worked on the investigation and rescue efforts as well as the autopsies. They also said if you needed anything else to give them a call."
"Thanks, Lee. Iíll keep you informed."
Nelson turned to Chip and relayed what Lee had told him. "When you were in Marino did you get any bad feelings about the clerks?"
"The one who helped me out volunteered the information about the doctor. Do you think she was doing it because she was told to?"
"It wouldnít be the first time a friendly face has led us down the primrose path. We definitely need to check her out. First we need to pay a visit to Morettiís employer. Before we do we need to elicit a little help."
Nelson shook his head. "Too much red tape. Moretti was sleazy but somehow he kept friends. Letís see if we can use that to our advantage."
In an effort to stay off the Italian governmentís radar Nelson arrived at the cafť at midday, both alone and unannounced. He knew his appearance would spark local interest and as expected the bartender and his bouncers soon appeared. The strongmen quickly surrounded him.
"If you are truly Aldo Morettiís friends you will want to hear me out. I know what happened to him." As the skeptical crowd moved in closer Nelson repeated his comments in Italian.
The bartender pushed his way into the circle, said a few words to the men and they backed away. "Where is he? What did you do to him?"
"I didnít do anything but Iím afraid itís not good news. Your friend is dead." He looked into the eyes of each bodyguard. "» morto."
The menís anger was palpable. One of them lunged at the interloper and grabbed his collar. "We call polizia."
"If you were going to do that you would have already done it," said Nelson as he yanked the manís hand down. "Keep your heads and Iíll tell you what I know."
The bartender waved off his men then leaned in and whispered into Nelsonís ear. "This better be good. These men are very angry and nervous. I cannot control their actions."
Nelson nodded. Without mentioning Chip or the inheritance he provided the men with the few details he had. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a slip of paper and handed it to the bartender. "I donít know where his body was taken but it was carted away in a truck with that license plate and markings."
The bartender eyed the paper but said nothing.
"I will help you find him. I want to know as much as you do why he was killed."
The men looked at each other, then to their de facto leader. He nodded to them then ushered Nelson over to a quiet corner where they sat down. "Aldo was not such a good friend. Not so long ago he became the village ricattatore."
"No surprise. What was his game?"
"For one thing he kept secrets on all of us and in much detail. He was here every day to remind us and once a week to collect his fee. He said as long as we protected him and made payments our secrets would be safe but if anything happened to him, one of his accomplices would reveal everything."
Though Nelson knew the answer to his next question he asked it anyway. "Why didnít you go to the authorities?"
"Who does one trust? Easier to pay the money and protect him. It has worked until now. Now all our most private information will be out in the air."
"What was he involved with that would get him killed?"
The barman shrugged. "Aldo had many enemies but I can tell you it was no one from Ciampino. I have spoken to many people about him. They share our disgust at his betrayal."
"Could it involve knowledge of a certain jet crash back in Fifty Four?"
As if a brick wall had suddenly appeared between the two, the man rose and pointed to the door. "We will take care of this. You must leave."
Nelson made no attempt to rise, instead he leaned back in his chair. "Someone besides Moretti is holding something over you. Iím not leaving until you tell me who it is."
The bartender looked over at his men then lowered his voice. "You may be famous but you have no right to come in here and make things worse for us."
Nelson moved to within inches of the bartenderís face. "I have every right," he said icily. "My parents died on that plane. I want to know if someone around here was responsible."
"All right, all right. Aldo was not alone. Two months ago someone, we do not know who it was, sent each of the villagers a letter. Told us to say nothing about the crash. If we did so our families, children would be hurt. We were also told not to go to the authorities."
"Who is this person, and how does he contact you?"
"We do not know who but we know he is still there. He sent someone posing as your son to test us. No one said anything to him but they are very scared."
Nelson briefly considered sharing the news that it was Chip who had been asking questions but decided to hold that card. "Let me see one of the letters."
"That is not possible. The person who sent them had us post them back, signed."
"Thatís convenient." Nelson then stood and spoke aloud. "Do you really want to get out from under the thumb of whoever is blackmailing you? Or do you want to live the rest of your lives in fear?"
"Our secrets are ours."
"We have to live here!"
"We want to protect our families, our children."
"I want to protect my family as much as you do!" Nelson spat. "How is paying people to keep secrets about your dalliances protecting anyone but yourselves? Is that the legacy you want to leave for your children?"
The men circled and spoke quietly for several minutes. When the group broke, their attitudes had changed significantly. "What is it you want us to do?"
Nelson sought to rattle those involved in Morettiís scheme so with the help of the Ciampinos he devised a plan that would target two of the parties Chip had visited previously. He and Sylvestri would each pair up with a native driver while additional taxis would be available for support, ready to track any conspirators who might be flushed by their questions. Since it would do the locals no good if there was no hard evidence to take to the authorities, the plan also included bugging each of the locations and recording any conversations.
Prepared for a verbal sparring match, Nelson strode into the Marino registry office. Instead of the clerks Chip had described he found only a single little old lady hunched over a typewriter. He called to her in English. She acknowledged him but nearly a minute passed before she stopped pecking at the keys and shuffled over to the service counter. As Nelson slipped her his passport he identified himself and made his request for the death certificates. The woman nodded, returned the passport back and shuffled over to a file cabinet. She returned shortly with bad news. "No Nelson in our records."
Nelson raised a brow. "Are you not required to keep copies of those who die on flights in your territory?"
The woman cocked her head. "No such regulation. I will look once more but I am almost certain we never had such documents."
With the clerkís back turned, Nelson slipped a tiny microphone into a crevice of a small statute resting on the counter near the telephone. The woman soon returned with nothing additional to offer.
"All, right," he growled. "Where do you suggest I try next?"
"British airline. Perhaps in London? Any bodies recovered would be sent there."
"Thatís not quiteÖ" Nelson caught himself. There was no need to reveal to the woman that he knew she was lying. "All right, thank you."
Once back in the cab, Nelson tuned his receiver. His payoff came quickly. The woman was on the phone warning someone in her native tongue that the Ďfamous Nelsoní was asking a lot of questions. Though he could not hear both sides of the conversation, her response was crystal clear. "I donít care if it is tricky. You better take care of him. He will be a lot more trouble than the blond one."
Nelson waved to his driver. "Find a vicolo where we can keep eyes on the door."
The cab pulled off and the driver backed into a nearby alley. The support driver steered his taxi around the block and took up a position at the other end. They had barely come to a stop when cars pulled up at each end, blocking their escape.
"This doesnít look good," muttered Nelsonís driver.
"No, not at all."
Ross Sylvestri had made it plain to Nelson that he was not a spy. It took four glasses of wine and two hours of coaxing by his friend before he agreed to visit the Ciampino library and pretend to research the crash. As he approached the entrance steps he toyed nervously with the mike in his pocket with his right hand and wiped sweat from his brow with the left. After a final deep breath he yanked on the door.
"Ciao, posso aiutarla?" greeted the young librarian.
"Ah, ciao. Lei parla inglese?"
"Yes, I do."
The smile on the young woman relaxed him, at least enough for him to blurt out what he wanted. His confidence sunk once again when she chuckled.
"Do you know why there is suddenly so much interest in that subject? Iíve had several inquiries on it recently."
"I canítÖ I have no idea. My research is on accident investigations. Working on my doctorate."
"Hmmm. After the last visitor I left the fiche behind the desk. Let me get it for you."
Sylvestri watched as the librarian looked all around beneath the desk, sifted through the contents of a filing cart then disappeared down the reference aisle. When she reappeared, her hands were empty and her expression had changed. "This is most distressing. I am so sorry. The microfiche for those years is gone. I cannot find it anywhere."
"I, uhÖ" Sylvestriís Ďsimpleí mission was not going as planned and he struggled to come up with an alternative so he could plant his bug. "Could someone have left it on the reader?"
"I checked there." She wrung her hands. "This is unusual for me. I pride myself on my organization."
"Would you please, please check again? Perhaps it was misfiled. I would hate to lose a first-hand account of the recovery of the debris."
The librarian acquiesced. She had barely turned away when Sylvestri shoved his hand into his pocket. When he discovered the microphone was no longer there he panicked. After vigorously patting his other pockets he spun around and scanned the floor. He spied the tiny device against the door threshold. At that unfortunate moment the woman returned.
"Did you lose something?"
"Just a button. It wasÖ in my pocket. Please keep looking for the fiche. Iíll look around."
"Let me help."
"That must be it!" she declared as she ran over and snatched up the mike. She looked at it briefly before handing it over. "I just remembered one more place to check. I will be back in a moment." She disappeared, returning seconds later with a pistol in her hand. It was pointed directly at Sylvestriís chest. Her friendly expression had turned ominous. "We do not like snoops." With her free hand she uncradled the phone and punched in a number. "Itís me. Get over here. I have a live one."
Rather than reveal his entire plan to the Ciampinos Nelson decided it was best that Chip maintain his cover. While the others carried out their missions he had Chip pay another visit to Le notizie del giorno. When the receptionist spotted the familiar six foot blond she stopped mid-greeting and bit down hard on her lip.
"I know,avete bisogno o ottenere il vostro padre." When she stepped from the room Chip slipped behind the desk and planted his microphone beneath it. He barely made it back around the counter before the older man appeared in the doorway, twitching nervously and dabbing his head with his handkerchief.
"Signore, you are back."
"Yeah, because you lied to me. I have it on good authority that you are practically the local expert on the Comet crashes."
"I did not lie. There was a fire. I have no copies of stories or notes."
"No, but you have all of it in your head."
He wiped his brow with his sleeve. "Why should I bring up these very old and very sad memories just for you, a man who is only looking for money?"
"You lecture me about conscience? You write trash and sell it to anyone who will buy it! Iíll give you one more chance. What do you know about the people on the service and repair crews for that flight? Are there any of them still around?"
"I know of no one."
"OÖkayÖ So what happened to the bodies? Who recovered them? Did the post mortem?"
"Those details are lost to me."
Chip pounded a fist on the counter. "Youíre a liar! Who was responsible for the autopsies and where were they done? And who is Dr. Francisco Gapaldi? You need to tell me what you know!"
"I know of no Gapaldi and there is nothing I can tell you that is not in the official reports!"
Chip moved in close, his hot breath bouncing from the editorís face. "You think the heat is bad now, just wait. I hear Admiral Nelson is here, in Rome. Heís also looking into the crash. Heís got a lot more clout than me and he will expose whatever it is youíre hiding."
The newsman stepped back and pointed towards the door. "You have no right to come here with threats. Leave now! Before I call the authorities!"
Chip held up his hands. "I warned you."
Somewhat pleased with his performance, Chip stifled a grin. Once outside, he removed his backpack from behind some shrubs. By the time he pulled out the receiver and inserted the earphone the fireworks were already in full swing. Though he couldnít tell exactly what was being said, he was obviously the topic of the heated conversation. The daughter was pleading with her father. The manís responses were terse and appeared to fuel her fire. When the argument suddenly ceased Chip became concerned his quarry might be making a move. He ducked around the building just in time to see the man jump into his car and peel out. Concerned the woman might also flee he kept his eyes on the door. Sure enough she soon followed carrying a document box. She placed it into the trunk of a sedan. When she opened her door he was there to grab it, blocking her escape.
"Let me go! You have no right to harass me!"
"Your English is good. Good enough to warn an American to get out of town."
"How did youÖ?"
"Letís just say Iím good with voices. Even through the walls of a crate." Chip pointed to the trunk. "What did you put in there? Documents of the crash or the files for a blackmail scheme involving Aldo Moretti and your father?"
She yanked on her door but it wouldnít give. "You think you know everything but you know nothing!" she spat.
"So straighten me out."
Without warning the woman let loose of the door and lashed out, beating on Chipís chest and kicking his shins. When he finally gained hold of both of her arms all the fight seemed to flow from her body. She began to sob. "My father is a victim here. So am I. And so was Aldo. And itís all your fault."
"How is that?"
"If you had not come here and interfered no one would have been hurt."
Chip frowned. "You mean no one besides MorettiÖand me. Sorry, but I take it personally when someone tries to kill me."
"But I let you out. You owed it to me to leave and let them think you were dead."
"Does Ďthemí include your father? I bet now that he knows Iím alive heís gone to inform the others so they can finish the job. Did he tell you to keep me distracted until they get here?"
The woman remained silent.
"If your father was all that concerned about you he never would have exposed you to any of this."
"He would never do anything to hurt mamma, or me. He is a good man."
"Sorry, but from my perspective he has some large cracks in his halo."
In order to find out what was in the box Chip softened his tone. "You know my name. Whatís yours?"
She sighed. "That is none of your business."
"Look, I can tell family is important to you. If youíre like me itís more important to you than money. I lived all my life thinking I didnít have one. When I found out I did I wanted to know everything, good or bad. All I want from you now is to find out what I can about the death of my grandparents. Just give me the information and I promise Iíll leave you alone."
"I have nothing to hide. I have only business records. To take to our avvocato."
"Then show me. If it is as you say Iíll be on my way back to the States."
She studied his face before finally giving him a crisp nod. "It will make me happy to prove that you are wrong." She opened the trunk, reached in and snatched the lid from the box. Yanking the first file from it she fanned the papers. "See, business documents. Bills and receipts for newsprint, ink, equipment repairs, pens, pencils."
The woman removed each folder and translated each document. As she placed the last file back in the box she turned to her tormentor. "See, I told you," she said smugly. "Now you must go."
She reached for the lid but Chip grabbed her arm. "What about the ledger?"
After removing a section of files, Chip reached into the bottom of the box and removed a hidebound book. "This ledger. Whatís in it?"
"Give that to me!" she screamed repeatedly as she attempted to grab the book. When Chip held it up out of her reach she launched another barrage of kicks and punches. He kept backing away but she stuck with him.
Apparently alerted by the womanís screams, several newspaper employees streamed out the door and ran to her aid. Since he had likely found what he had come for, and rather than start a fight he could not win, Chip grabbed his pack, tucked the book under his arm and took off in a sprint. With the men still in hot pursuit he looked around desperately for a method of escape. He found one in the form of a taxi. He flagged it down.
"Roma, rapido!" He slid into the back seat and ducked his head, pulling the door closed as they sped away from the curb. He waited several minutes before sitting upright and giving the cab driver his hotel address.
With his curiosity in overdrive, Chip pulled out the ledger and studied it. Someone had meticulously detailed business transactions, some dating back nearly three decades. He scanned the pages looking for anything familiar. A smile crept to his lips when he discovered the names of Admiral Nelsonís parents and other passengers from the crashed jetliner. Satisfied, he snapped the book closed. After it was secured in his pack he leaned back and glanced at his watch. It would be ten more minutes before he could safely contact the admiral.
Chip became oblivious to the passing scenery but the sound of the automatic door locks dis-engaging were like klaxons. "What are you doing? Where are we?" he shouted as the cab screeched to a halt. A figure in a dark suit pulled open the back door and slipped inside.
The cabbie chuckled as the other man pointed his gun at the blond. "I will tell you, signore, but you will not like the answer."
Nelson was chafing. It had been hours since his captors had locked him in the windowless room with only a chair, a bottle of water and a bucket. They were well aware of who he was but had been unwilling to identify themselves or to say what they wanted. They had also refused to allow him to contact anyone on the outside. He briefly considered that he was being held a hostage, but his current impression was these men were government agents. All was made clear when a man with a distinct military bearing entered the room and introduced himself.
"Admiral Nelson, I am Generale Nalon of La Guardia di Finanza. I must apologize for keeping you in the dark so long. If you would be so kind as to join me? I will explain."
Nelson rose and the pair moved down the hall. "As you are aware, our organization is responsible for investigations involving organized crime. Your name has come up in one such investigation."
"You canít possibly think I was involved?"
The corners of his mouth curled up. It was not quite a smile. "You did make a name for yourself among my peers in Venezia but no, I do not think you were involved." Nalon ushered Nelson into a conference room where the walls were covered with organizational charts and mugshot photos. He pointed to one of the extensive charts. "We have learned that this family working out of Napoli has been infiltrating the businesses of other organizations in the Lazio district. They have not yet developed a competing protection racket but they have perfected an unusual form of extortion."
Nelson cocked his head. "Does it involve blackmailing wealthy families?"
The general nodded. "In part. They have done what is typical for them; recruiting members of the press and bribing government officials to gather negative information to use for extortion. That is but the tip of the iceberg. At some point they became involved in the manipulation of estates. You see, here in Italy there are very strict rules for passing on family wealth. The deceased cannot completely exclude an entitled individual from his will even if the testator despises them. To get around this rule some families have resorted to pruning their family trees, so to speak. They paid racketeers to kill and to issue falsified autopsy reports and death certificates. List the manner of death as accident and no one is the wiser."
A shiver ran up Nelsonís spine. "How long has this been going on?"
"We believe many years. We have recently discovered a new twist. Not only have the organizations been collecting their cut of the proceeds, they have altered documents to make sure the bulk of the inheritance passes directly to them. They fake birth certificates and create new family members that come forward at the settlement of the estate. The families who ordered the hit had no problem killing, but take offense at being defrauded."
The implications of the widespread fraud made Nelson grimace. "Do you have a cigarette?" he asked as he ran a hand through his hair.
"Oh, I have been remiss, I will have my assistant bring one to you. I will be right back."
Very soon a stern-looking young man arrived carrying the requested items and a large file box. He set the box on the end of the table, handed Nelson the smoking materials then made a hasty exit. When Nalon returned he found Nelson puffing away and standing over the box. "You are curious?"
"Of course. I suppose something in this box explains why Iím here."
Nalon nodded curtly. "As you have likely guessed there is a connection between your investigation and ours. Disasters like the crash of the Comet are magnets for fraud. In this case one of the passengers was a wealthy Italian who had no children. The racketeers wanted to create two children who would each have a claim to the estate but they did not wish to wait for the case to be resolved. To move it forward they saw to it that their pathologist performed the autopsy on the few remains that were recovered. He declared those remains belonged to their man. Documents were soon produced and the estate proceeds did indeed pass to the so-called children. We were called by a true heir who was attempting to retrieve property that should have been his."
"And in order for you to investigate the fraud thoroughly you had to investigate us all."
"Yes. Sometimes investigations expose scandalous information; however, we found nothing about your parents or you that implicates you, or them, in any way."
As he took a long draw from his cigarette Nelson was shaking. He had his answers. "Thatís good to hear."
"As for the box. As we have made arrests we have located many documents and artifacts we believe are related to the Comet crashes. Once our investigation is complete they will turned over to proper authorities. Please feel free to look through them. You may remain here as long as you like. If there is anything else you need, my man is just outside."
When Nalon turned to leave Nelson stopped him. "I need to contact my friends here in Italy, let them know Iím all right. If you could arrange a satellite phone..."
Nalon held up his hand. "There is no need. Your men are safe with other agents and have been informed you are here. Our dragnet is proceeding very well. We should be able to release all of you in another twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Of course, for your safety you all must return to the United States immediately."
Though angry at the inconvenience of captivity, Nelson remained calm. He thanked Nalon then settled into a chair next to the box. Two cigarettes later he removed the lid.
After several hours of sifting through news articles, reports and handwritten notes, Nelson removed a file markedĎcivilian rescue crew.í Out fell a group of photographs. They appeared to have been taken at sea from a fishing boat, likely a part of the fishing fleet from Naples that had been employed to search for wreckage and bodies. Many of the photos were of open sea. Others detailed piles of debris that had been pulled onto the boat for further examination. Nelson caught himself looking for something familiar in the debris. "Silly old fool!" he snapped aloud. At that moment something on one of the photos drew his eye. He jumped up and rushed over to the door and flung it open. In dashed his agent guard. "Get me a magnifying glass!" A quizzical look appeared on the agentís face. "Lente di ingrandimente! Pronto!"
The young man soon returned with the glass. Nelson snatched it from his hand and held it up to the photo. An unexpected upwelling of emotion took over when he realized the object was indeed a wide brimmed hat. It was just like the one his mother often wore. He turned his back to the agent and waved him out of the room. He then sat down and wept.
Chip was well-practiced at gauging Nelsonís mercurial moods but his current one was very different. Nelson had been very quiet, almost serene since he, Chip and Sylvestri had left Italy in FS-1. Chip had no desire to disturb the admiral, but he had not been briefed on the Italian investigation and was eager to learn the details. Fortunately he wasnít forced to broach the subject; somewhere over the Atlantic Nelson brought up the topic.
"Chip, would it interest you to know that details in the ledger you picked up at Le notizie del giorno resulted in ten arrests"
"That many? What were they up to, sir?"
"Extortion, fraud, murder. They are still running down leads so many more may fall. Fortunately for the authorities the editor wrote everything down. Every time a hit man was hired, every time a single lira was paid out, every time one of his reporters scored with a usable tidbit that could translate to profit, he recorded it for future use."
"What about the daughter?"
"Even if her father never talked to her about it directly she was in the perfect position to pick up on his schemes. Unfortunately for her, her rescue of you does not clear her of any of the other charges."
"Moretti was a fool. He used some of the information he culled to branch out on his own. Thatís why he came to me. The organization wasnít happy for the attention. As you guessed he was hoping I would rescue him."
"Sir, was anyone in Ciampino on the up and up?"
"Some of the villagers. The bartender and his men, some taxi drivers. A few of Nalonís agents were deep undercover for years and got to know them all."
"Admiral, was there any fallout for you?"
"I did get a lecture on failing to notify the Italian government of our operation and interfering with a federal investigation."
Sylvestri had remained silent, but it was clear he was irritated about the entire affair. "And after I was abducted and kept in a jail cell for days I had to leave Italy."
"Ross, can I call on you in the future for your expertise? Like when I need an operative for a special mission?"
There was silence until a pillow launched by the reluctant spy reached the back of Nelsonís head and the admiral feigned injury. All three men broke out in badly needed laughter.
"I guess that answers my questions." Itís good to have answers, he thought.
Though Nelson had hosted a large number of dinner parties at his various posts, he had never held one inhis apartment at the Institute. He considered it one of his few sanctuaries, if there were such places. When Lee and Chip each received invitations for he and a guest to join him and Edith for such an event, both were surprised and a little concerned. Nelson had been hinting at major changes to come and they wondered if the admiral might be planning to step away from the Institute and from Seaview.
Lee and his long time date Mariana Pelletier were the first to arrive. They were greeted by an effusive Edith. "Please, please come in, Lee, Mariana. Itís wonderful to see you both. Harry is on the phone but he should be out in a minute. Why donít the two of you make yourselves comfortable?"
Once the women were seated Lee stepped over to the bar to prepare drinks for himself and his date. As he loaded ice into the glasses he scanned the room. The antique leather furniture, nautical lamps and shelves filled with books were as they had always been. So were the nineteenth century charts hanging on the wall. The large vases of flowers on each end table and a colorful valence atop the sliding door opening were definitely new. Likely Edithís influence, he thought. As he handed Mariana her drink he happened to glance at the assemblage of photos on the library table. There he did a double take. On past visits a large photo of Seaview and her christening had been the centerpiece of the display. While there was still a small photo of the boat in the collection, Nelsonís family photos now held prominence.
"Something interesting Lee?"
"No, sir, I was justÖ"
A rap on the door signaled the final guests had arrived. Nelson excused himself and went to greet them.
"Something smells wonderful, Admiral," declared Chipís date, Chancey Colgate. She took another sniff. "Beef Bourguignon is my guess."
Nelson nodded. "Good nose. That would be all Edithís doing. Chip, while you take care of Chanceyís drink Iíll get the hors díoeuvres."
Nelson disappeared into the kitchen, returning a minute later with a tray of canapťs. "Also Edithís doing. I will add that the recipes are from an old family cookbook. Touch of Irish, touch of French, a dash of Italian."
"Yes, I was quite happy to discover the book among some things Mother left. She was a grand cook. Iím sorry I had so little time to learn from her." Edithís voice was tinged with regret.
"Well she certainly left us a legacy. Lee, Chip, did I ever mention that it was our mother that got me interested in sea life?"
"No, sir," the men said in unison.
Nelson chuckled. "My earliest memories were of her taking me out the Cape to Truro to watch the great whites feeding on seals. It was a tough lesson for a three year old." He strolled over and picked up one of the photos on the table. "Here she is wading out into Eel Pond at Woods Hole to collect samples. You didnít see proper Boston women doing that kind of thing. She was a firecracker, for sure; wasnít afraid of anything on land or in the sea. She had the chutzpah to enroll me in the Childrenís School of Science there at Woods Hole when I was just five. The minimum age for enrollment was eight."
"Admiral, did your mother have formal training in oceanography?" queried Chip.
"Yes, she was fortunate to have been taught by some of the leading scientists of the day. In my opinion she taught me more about sea life than I learned in any of my own formal classes."
"Admiral, when did your interest switch from marine biology to naval architecture?" asked Mariana.
Edith smiled. "That was Fatherís influence."
"I wouldnít exactly call it influence. More like a mandate. He had big dreams; his only son would join the family business and work his way up. I was able to convince him that the Naval Academy would give me the formal engineering and management background necessary to design the ships that would be the future of his company. It wasnít that hard a sell. With the war breaking out in Europe he felt I would be safer, and closer, if I was at Annapolis. You all know how that turned out."
"After the war Harry went off to fulfill his destiny, never to return to the nest. Iíve always said Mother and Father saw me as a replacement for their wayward child but lately I realize I was being unkind to their memory. They loved me, just in a different way. Mother helped me appreciate science, even if it wasnít my interest, and Father taught me to handle money. Well now, I believe the entrťe should be about ready. Please, everyone take your seats at the table."
"I had been attracted to that small cove by what I believed to be a new species of fish. My error was deciding to take off on a small sailboat as gale warnings had been issued. The only thing that saved me was my knowledge of knots. I ended up spending the night tied to an old tree. Of course, I wasnít saved from Fatherís wrath. He kept me from sailing for the rest of the summer. That was worse than corporal punishment."
The tale was typical Nelson and the audience broke out in laughter.
"Tell them about the little business with the guests from Washington."
"Not sure this is the appropriate place for that one."
The group urged him to continue. "All right, you asked for it. We had a summer house on a place called Penzance Point. The elite of Boston all had summer residences there or on Marthaís Vineyard. Well, the development was on the site of an old fertilizer factory known as the Pacific Guano Works. I thought I might do a little research into what was left behind after it closed and how that might affect the environment. I gathered a number of samples from various locations around the neighborhood and took them to my lab upstairs to run tests. Part of that testing was to burn the organic matter to determine the amount of energy produced. Anyway I was busy with my experiments and didnít pay any attention to what was going on outside. I had totally forgotten that my parents had scheduled a little get-together with a few political types. I remembered when I heard banging on my door and found my mother standing there with her hands on her hips. She was furious. As you may have guessed the wind was just right and the smell wafted out over the patio. It added a distinctive spice to everyoneís dinner."
Mariana squinted. "Not good at all."
"I warned you. That wasnít the end of it, though. The neighbors started reporting an uptick of skunks and voles in the neighborhood. They pointed to all the holes in their yards as proof. I had to confess that I dug them and I spent nearly a week filling them in and making repairs to their lawns. Oh, and after the incident my parents forbade me from doing any more chemistry in the house."
Lee snickered. "You donít think all those people at the cookout still hold a grudge, do you Admiral?"
Nelson paused. "I hadnít thought about it but it is possible, Lee, entirely possible," he admitted then burst out laughing.
Through dinner Nelson regaled his guests with more stories of his adventurous childhood. Edith was surprised to hear about some of his antics, though she repeated one tale she had picked up from an anonymous source. "Harry was probably about eight. Of course that would be like eighteen for the rest of us. He was intent on winning the school science fair so he sent a list of supplies he needed to Father. Father was very tight with a dime so he demanded Harry justify each item, line by line. Harry refused, saying he didnít want to reveal exactly what he was making, lest someone get wind of it and take his idea. Father finally gave in, but told Harry he would have to refund his allowance if he didnít win the fair. As you may have guessed the first place award went to someone else. That evening Father summoned Harry to his study to balance the account. Harry handed over the money without any excuses, which infuriated Father. Father did a little investigating and as it turned out Harry never submitted the project he had planned. Some company had heard about it and offered to buy rights to his process, sight unseen. Harry had even begun negotiations with the company before Father caught up to him. As it turned out, that process earned Harry his very first patent."
Nelson noticed the scattered yawns in the crowd. "I know it is getting late, but before everyone goes I would like to make a couple of announcements." Nelson noticed Lee and Chip exchange glances. "Relax, gentlemen, you still have your jobs."
The two men broke into grins.
"Iíve been thinking a lot about family of late. I no longer consider family something from my past but a part of my future. In that vein, Edith and I have decided to create a foundation named in our parentsí honor."
"It will support a cause near and dear to our parents; cultivating young geniuses. Weíll call it the Harriette and Manus Nelson Prodigy Bank."
"Edith will manage the foundation. She is a genius at finance and has a knack for organization and fundraising. She also has a lot more patience withÖ just about everything and everyone."
"Thank you, Harry."
Lee raised his glass. "To all the Nelsons."
"The Nelsons!" shouted the group in unison.
"Now for the more important announcement. My dear Edith is engaged to be married!"
"Thatís wonderful!" exclaimed Chancey.
"Congratulations!" added Mariana. "Whoís the lucky guy?"
"His nameís Carling Reed. Why donít you ladies help me carry these last few dishes into the kitchen and Iíll tell you all about him."
Everyone rose and as the women disappeared into the kitchen, Lee and Chip stepped into the living room. Nelson poured himself an aperitif then joined his officers.
Chip raised his empty hand. "Hereís to a happy and healthy future."
"Yes, to the future," added Lee as he raised his own invisible glass.
Nelson raised an eyebrow. "The two of you canít fool me. I know youíre sweating over the idea of having a bunch of geniuses running around."
Lee suppressed a grin. "Why would you think that, Admiral?"
"Hmmmm. Well, just to set you at ease, weíve decided that most of them will be working on land based projects. They will need to prove themselves before theyíre ever allowed on Seaview."
Once his guests had gone Nelson poured another glass of Scotch and took a seat on his recliner. The smoothness of the drink was in stark contrast to the way he felt. He was nervous; more so than he could recall at any time in the recent past. When he reached the bottom of the glass he finally summoned the courage to go through with what he had planned. He arose and walked over to his desk and reached in, removing a piece of paper and a pen. He sat for a while and considered what he would say. After scribbling a few words on the paper he reached for the telephone and punched in the number.
Though his was uncharacteristically shaky, the voice on the other end of the line was as confident as he remembered.
"Millie, itís Harry, Harry Nelson. Do you have some time to talk?"
"Harry Nelson! Itís so good to hear your voice!"