There has always been a mystery in Julia Rochfort's family. Who killed her grandfather Guy, a member of the Italian resistance movement in World War Two? When Julia travels to Florence to compete in a singing competition, she meets Roberto Padovano, already an established opera star, and they discover that they have a lot more in common than simple attraction.
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26th November, London, 1993.
She had foreseen his revenge, but the attack when it came was brutal. Impossible to avoid, she watched the knife slicing towards her heart, her features betraying a mixture of anger and agonised suspense. Too late - she would never know love now, only obsession.
He struck, and a dull throbbing bloomed in her chest. The blow smashed her to her knees and the wooden floor seemed to jackknife upwards, sucking her into a cool embrace. She lay still, horror and fear fading as a warm languor swept through her body. Dying was easy.
Dimly, she heard the man standing over her chant something; a lament, a name, then he too was silent.
The main lights snapped on and she coughed.
'Sorry, it's the dust,' Julia murmured, coming out of the role and her character, rising to her feet. The Maestro seized her hand.
'Marvellous,' he was saying over the applause. 'Bravo!'
The masterclass for Carmen was over.
The Maestro caught up with her as she was hurrying from the hall. 'Is it tomorrow you're going?'
Julia nodded, pushing Carmen's veil down in her bag.
'Good luck - take care.'
Julia smiled, thinking of another promise. 'I will,' she said.
Summer 1944, Italy.
The terror began with the music. As they wound up the gramophone, the youth moaned and thrashed, trying hopelessly to break free. He lay in chains, a blindfold cutting into his eyes. The walls of the underground chamber were wet: blood or water he did not know. Sometimes he touched the stones with his broken fingers, desperate to invoke their silence in himself.
This time would he break? The record needle dropped onto the seventy-eight, the chamber rang. A finger glided down the boy's calf - he tensed, but the pain did not come at the music's climax. A lighted cigarette was thrust against his right foot and allowed to burn, spitting in the open wounds.
‘Tell me!' The whisper carried over the chords, over his scream, piercing the moment when he felt he could bear no more.
'Know nothing.. .' He shuddered. 'Don't.' He lifted his head, pleading with the Whisperer, the voice he most feared.
There was a moment's silence. And then a man, another captive, suddenly began shouting.
'I'll have you! Not one of your family will be safe! I'll have your wives, your children - their children . . . I promise you - you'll see . . .'
28th November, 1993, Florence, Italy.
Her search would begin tomorrow - tonight she could keep for herself.
The wind, sweeping through the funnel of jewellers' shops, thrust Julia along the Ponte Vecchio. She sped across Florence's oldest bridge, watching the faces of the local people, fascinated by their every nuance of expression, at once familiar and exotic. Winter sunlight flashed on her earrings as she turned her head. determined to miss nothing.
Polished windows tossed back reflections of a young woman in jeans, trainers and duffel coat. With glowing skin, bright, grey eyes, animated features and a heedful of black curls, she attracted attention even in the bustle of the pre-festive rush. She could be taken for a teenage daughter of the Italian matrons cutting over the bridge with their bags of vegetables, yet she had the surface confidence of someone older, unafraid to show feeling in an age of fashionable cynicism.
That same commitment marked Julia Rochfort as a rising force in British opera. She was twenty-six, and this was her first time in Italy since childhood.
English, English-speaking, yet also fluent in Italian, Julia had always intended to return to the country where she had been born. She found herself at ease within the swarms of dark-haired Christmas shoppers and black street traders hawking bangles and carpets. Out of the crush a jeweller sat relaxing beside his window, drinking from a china saucer. Julia smiled at him as she passed.
The wind swept on, grit-blasting the eastern edge of the City of Flowers, cleaning and brightening its face. The golden orb at the top of the dome of the cathedral gleamed, like a star pointing the way she should go.
Julia knew where she was going. She was taking part in a singing competition, the springboard, she hoped, to an international career. In four days she would be performing to her first Italian audience. She was apprehensive yet exhilarated, opened-out by the challenge.
She was in Florence, amongst people who spoke the same language as herself, who were dark as she was; people with whom she felt she belonged.
The sharp tang of the river drew her to the loggia set in the middle of the medieval bridge. Wind flicking her face, she passed a gaggle of school children, arguing - with the same extravagant face-pulling she had made herself as a child - over whose turn it was on a pocket-sized games machine, and leaned out over the Arno. The tip of her tongue played between her teeth, as always when she was concentrating.
Looking across the muddy waters to the biscuit-coloured apartments opposite put Julia in mind of her own family. Enrico and her mother Angelica would be boarding their plane now, to spend Christmas in Tenerife.
The holiday was her gift. In October, her mother went into hospital for an operation - not serious, but Julia was on tour and unable to visit. Now, with Angelica fully recovered, a long stay on a warm island would set her parents up for the new year.
It had made a hole in her savings, but she had been glad to spend it. She just wished she and her mother—
Julia laughed at herself and shook her head, cutting off the thought. She watched two youths bump over the stone sets on a scooter, black slicked hair gleaming more than their leathers. Across the river, above the snarl of rush-hour cars came the sudden ringing of bells, a clock striking the hour: it would soon be evening. In the meantime she would enjoy this mirage-like dusk of fading sun and coloured lights, the music of people's voices, the throaty chatter of roosting pigeons.
Julia smiled, absented-mindedly winding a curl of hair round her thumb. It was ironic that she, so much a creature of light, should spend most of her life working at night.
Enough, she thought, stifling old fears with a twist of her hand. Tomorrow she was going to Bologna, to see where Enrico had lived. Her stepfather had always talked about his life in Bologna, but was afraid to go back in case he or the city had changed. His widowed mother and sister had been killed during the Allies' bombardment: Enrico, then a prisoner of war, had seen no reason to return. He had stayed in England, eventually marrying a woman fifteen years younger than himself and with a small child - Julia.
Tomorrow she was going to Bologna to trace her mother's surviving Italian family.
This search was as important to her as the competition. Whatever happened, Julia had decided to spend three weeks in Italy. Surely in that time she would find something.
She pushed away from the chill parapet. Seeing a beggar crouching under the third arch of the loggia, Julia crossed over to give him money, then hurried on. Enrico knew virtually nothing about his wife's past: she had promised her stepfather she would find out something. The journey to Bologna was partly for his sake, an attempt to discover who Angelica's family were, but mostly, Julia had to admit, the trip was for herself, filling a gap in her life.
‘You think Rochfort is Italian?' her mother would say whenever Julia attempted to question Angelica about where they had both come from, 'I'm English. You're English. Forget Italy.'
Julia could not forget. Perhaps if her beautiful, auburn-haired, English-rose complexioned mother had told her of the Rochforts, of her real father, Julia might have been able to dismiss Italy, yet Angelica had remained stubbornly silent on these too. Throughout her childhood, Julia felt she belonged nowhere: she had often wished she looked as English as her mother, yet she did not.
Now, as an adult, Julia recognised that whatever her mother's claims, Angelica was also Italian. She had married Enrico, given up 'Rochfort' and taken his name. She was Angelica Varisi; she was linked to someone with a past. Enrico had snapshots of his family, Julia had none of the Rochforts. Or of the others, the mysterious Italian side that her mother always denied. It was not enough to have a name and nothing more.
She had been born in Emilia Romagna - Angelica had told her that much. Bologna was the capital of the region. Somewhere in that city there would be her birth records, people she could talk to, a family to discover.
Julia wished the days were longer, so that she could start at once.
Glancing back, she noticed a man in a grey woollen coat and scarlet scarf approaching. He was eating almond macaroons from a paper bag. A few crumbs showed pale against his lapels.
Julia swung round into the wind, pausing to fiddle with the loose bracelet of her watch. The man was speaking to the beggar, who gestured in her direction. She recalled seeing him earlier, hearing snatches of that staccato tread as she crossed the flags of the Straw Market and later along the stone corridor linking the Uffizi gallery to the Ponte Vecchio. Her musician's training gave her a good ear, a good memory.
Licking her lips, Julia decided to return to the jeweller's to have her watch repaired. It was something she should have had done weeks ago, except she had never had time.
Fifteen minutes later, the bracelet of her watch tightened and snug against her wrist - 'No charge,' the jeweller told her, with a smile she emerged back onto the street.
The man in the grey coat was still there, scowling at the prices in the window across from her. Tossing a crumpled paper bag into the gutter, where the breeze spun it along, he moved when she did.
Another tourist, taking in the same sights.
Julia stiffened, irritated at herself. This was already her country. She strode over the last cobbles off the Ponte Vecchio without looking back.
He was lurking when she bought throat pastilles at the pharmacist, prowling at another card carousel as she chose her postcards. He was nearby as she took note of a dry-cleaner's address.
His persistence deserved a medal, thought Julia wryly, but not from her. She decided she would leave finding a launderette for another time. Her thumb wound in her hair as she walked on. Now that she thought about it, this fellow was interested in linen, too. Why else had he been lingering near the market stall where she had bought her sewing silk?
'Come on then, pinch me,' she muttered, humour and irritation blending. She wondered if she were being unfair. Had she perhaps smiled at the man in one of their coincidental meetings, sent the wrong signal? She wished he would make his move. 'Let's get it over with.' Checking her step, she turned.
Twenty paces back on the pavement, the man had stopped. Ignoring frowns and gestures from people who shoved past, he was cleaning under his fingernails with a knife - not a penknife: Julia knew that at once. This was something heavier, surely much larger than any normal person would wish to carry.
Telling herself that she was over-reacting, Julia lengthened her stride. Suddenly she felt very alone.
Behind her the beat of footsteps increased.
A few moments later, whipping down twisting, car-echoing side streets back to the river, she was convinced she had lost him. Humming a competition piece, Julia crossed a road lined with Vespas and turned down another alley, hoping to find a short cut to the rank of bus stops outside Florence station. Her hotel was in the suburbs.
He was waiting up ahead in the piazza, one of several men leaning against a column. She saw him detach from the group: the blood-red scarf separating him from a hundred other strollers. He wasn't a tourist. He knew the city better than she. Her knowledge came from maps; his from experience.
The red scarf bothered her more than the knife. It suggested impulse, a man who had spotted her in the street and was wondering whether to try an approach to ask her out. Yet the stranger was stalking her with a determination which seemed out of all proportion to such a casual interest. But if he were trailing her - as he obviously was - then why would he wish to draw attention to his pursuit? Was the scarf a signal to others?
Even compared with opera plots the idea was bizarre, but then this was Italy, home of the kidnapper. Only last month a certain soprano - famous but hardly a great star - had been snatched from her hotel in Padova and held for ransom.
Dammit, thought Julia, yanking her hood over her head then immediately tugging it back, she wasn't going to allow this man to worry her. Nor under any circumstances would she lead him to her hotel.
Cutting through office cleaners streaming from a bank at the corner of another small, bustling square, Julia stepped briskly along the Via de' Tornabuoni. Florence's smartest street thronged with fashionable locals - easy to distinguish from visitors by their designer sunglasses worn even in winter, and those loose, taupe-coloured suits. Choosing the brighter, wind-blown half, she made great play of studying the ultramodern clothes displayed in the new Galatea salon. The mirrors gave her a chance to observe more closely.
There he was, walking straight past, scowling at the strobe light. Small and slight, with a jerky gait. Definitely not what she thought of as a mugger or the kind of prowler who preyed on lone women. He was older than his close-cropped brown hair and animated walk suggested - fifty at least. Expensive grey suit, close-fitting coat, conservative tie - clothes which should have given him presence. The red scarf was incongruous with such an outfit, yet somehow fitted the man.
No, he was nothing more sinister than a pest, Julia decided. The knife was probably bravado. There was no need for her to search for a police station, nor disturb the two carabinieri striking a movie-star pose on the street corner. Their guns made her nervous of approaching them, especially in so trivial a matter. She did not want to be mocked or pitied by those tough young men because of one ageing Romeo.
Julia stuck to that conclusion even in her more paranoid moments, when, between gusts of swirling air, she imagined she could hear that busy tread both behind and coming towards her. She hurried along, planning what she would do, counting her steps under her breath to keep wilder fancies in check. No one could possibly be interested in her. She had two assets, a strong voice and stamina, neither of which could be sold - not yet, anyway, not as a performer unknown outside England and without a recording contract. So who would pay for her release?
She dismissed the idea, letting out a sigh as she passed the obelisk outside the black and white patterned front of Santa Maria Novella. Cutting through a bumper to bumper line of traffic, she entered the building, forgetting to cover her head. She had remembered that this church backed onto the road opposite to the Station. Soon there would be a bus leaving for the outskirts. She would wait inside, then make a run.
The man would not accost her here: even Cosa Nostra drew a line at attacking people in the sanctuary of church.
Julia's prayers were swift. She checked her watch by the candle light: twenty minutes left.
At the end of the time she burst out of the great church, darting round two sides of the long building before her eyes had fully adjusted to the twilight. Her bus was waiting along the Piazza delta Stazione, revving its engine. Julia pitched into the melee - Italians never queue when they can shove - and was fighting for a place when a prickling between her shoulders made her swing about.
The man had joined the crowd and was elbowing closer.
Julia felt a blaze of anger - she did not want this creep trailing her all the way to Bologna. She had been wrong to be discreet: the best way to deal with a threat was to confront it.
She stopped dead in the heaving mass, letting people flow past, and pitched her voice so everyone could hear.
'I really think this has gone far enough,' she said coolly, her narrow hand pointing unerringly to its target. 'I'm talking to the gentleman with the red scarf. If you don't stop following me, I'm calling the police.'
The smallest of gaps opened for an instant around the man in the red scarf and several more innocent businessmen, their expressions such that Julia was almost sorry.
Seizing the moment before the press closed up again, she leapt onto the bus as its doors were closing. The driver roared off as she squeezed past other standing passengers to punch her ticket, her hands not quite co-ordinated as she glimpsed the man staring after her from the pavement.
The man's name was Tommaso and he answered to it, although in his own mind he was Tom. Now he was angry at himself for giving way to impulse. Seeing the girl by chance in the street, he had lost his head.
And how, Tom thought, scowling into his unsugared brandy coffee. His left hand was aching: he'd had to dig out a splinter from under the nail - he got a lot of splinters in his line of work and nearly always missed a couple until they were really hurting. He hadn't considered what the girl might think, catching him using a knife in the street.
Shaking his head, Tom took a sip of coffee, savouring the bitter drink whilst he stared out at the emptying square from his bar stool. In the tobacco stand opposite, a crumpled stack of papers flapped the day's stale news: another collaborator exposed and brought to trial. With the World War Two fiftieth anniversary commemoration due in the new year, prosecuting magistrates had switched their attentions away from the Mafia. These days anyone who wanted to get on in the judiciary was rooting out war criminals: it was seen as part of the new democracy, a clearing of the decks.
Tom snorted, signalling to the barman. Only Italians could get excited about ancient witch hunts.
The bearded barman brought him another coffee, poured in brandy without asking. Tom always drank brandy coffee at this bar: the place and indeed the city had many special memories for him. Of course had it not been for the business he would not have moved here two years ago after his wife's death. He wasn't sentimental, although he had his weaknesses.
He had kept his promise to his wife over the years, but that hadn't stopped him from being curious. When he had read the article in Oggi and learned that the girl was coming to Italy, Tom had seen it as fate. He was a believer in fate.
Tom lifted his grey coat from the next stool, leaving a few coins on the bar. He'd been undecided about Julia. Maybe if she hadn't confronted him he might not have bothered, let the whole thing slide. As it was, he had been offered a challenge.
Planning their next encounter, he stepped into the dark street, tucking the scarf round his throat to keep out the wind.
Sherry eyes fixed on his fellow-singer, Roberto pursued Isabel Alvarez across the stage through rows of peasant dancers.
He was a tall, vigorous figure. The sword at his belt seemed freshly forged for him. the long athletic lines of the eighteenth-century costume breeches suited him. A thin white shirt defined every muscle of his torso as he sang.
His face, that square forehead and chin and hawkish nose, was as telling as a Roman portrait bust, but his dark brown hair was a war zone of untamed spiky curls.
Isabel, the Spanish-American soprano singing Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni was as beguiled as the audience of the San Francisco opera house. Roberto Padovano could have any woman he wanted, Isabel thought, and I wish it were me. She wished she and Padovano were more intimate than just colleagues. The Italian bass was just so convincing as the Don.
But the conductor was glaring at her from the orchestra pit: she was losing concentration. Isabel began and finished a heated duet with another singer and tried to conceal her impatience as the stage emptied. In a few moments, she would be in Padovano's arms as much as Don Giovanni's.
Now they were alone. If only this was more than acting, she thought, her voice almost stopping as he approached.
He caught her at the edge of the stage. His actor's kisses covered her eyes and cheeks and lips. He played at untying the strings on the bodice of her costume. He wrapped his arms tenderly around her middle - singing all the while, it seemed, only to her.
It was better than sex - almost. No man could sing like this one: the love song poured from him, a living caress in sound. Closing her eyes, Isabel leaned against him, breathing in music, answering not because she remembered the words but because she wanted them to become real.
Their duet drawing to a close, Roberto whirled her off her feet. carrying her towards the back of the stage as they sang.
Isabel shivered. A warm hand stroked along her flank, the touch light yet firm.
‘You're doing fine.' His low speaking voice steadied her. Roberto smiled, absently wiping a trickle of moisture from the side of his nose, brown hair spiralling across his forehead.
As he set her down on her feet, Isabel let out a shriek.
Roberto glanced up. A light fitting directly above them tilted wildly, then snapped with a loud crack. The heavy mass plummeted downwards.
With one hand, Roberto thrust Isabel Alvarez out of harm's way. His own momentum had them both on the floor, where they skidded violently into a laden props table. Disregarding a sudden fire in his left foot, Roberto gathered Isabel Alvarez gently into his arms, cradling her as the curtain finally swung down over the wreck of the light.
The doctor at the state hospital glanced from the X-ray to the tall impassive man seated in his consulting room.
‘You finished the performance with this?' the doctor asked, tapping the X-ray sheet with his finger.
'After a break to restore a little calm.'
'Just as well it was the last night. Must have hurt like hell.'
Roberto smiled, thinking already of his flat in Milan, of local bars familiar evening strolls and the fountains in the park across the road. 'Not as much as it could have. Accidents happen.' Glancing at his watch, he knew he would still make it to the airport for his flight home.