Vera Manzi shuffled about in the five hundred year old apartment she shared with her husband, Salvatore, preparing to turn in for the night. Caffettiera prepared and on the stove, she ran a hand through her coarse grey hair to loosen it from the bun she wore during the day. She slipped her housecoat on the peg on the back of the kitchenette door and took one last look outside of her window. August felt like no-man’s land in this city, the insufferable heat like a weight on her chest and the emptiness of the summer as soulless as the eternity of the wide blue sky above. Nowadays she was too old to escape it. Salvatore wasn’t in good health, his cancer having spread from his bowel to his lungs, and in any case, she was tired.
A click made her look round and call for her husband. But he was already in bed, his snores audible from the other side of the apartment. She shook her head and made for the bathroom. Once there, the buzzing of her electric toothbrush soothed her for a moment. The bedroom door was open a crack to reveal the corner of her antique bed and the matching walnut dressing table with its baroque curves and photos of her daughter and grandchildren encased within silver frames. She thought of their affluent lives in the USA, a different world from this tiny oasis of Roman peace. Here, in this minute historic apartment on one of the most beautiful and historic roads in the city, at least one could pretend the violence of modern life wasn’t happening.
Another click, and this time she froze. ‘Salvatore’?’ her voice cracked. Hairs stood up on the back of her neck and she felt a sudden chill, despite the heat.
No answer came from her husband, but she could no longer hear his snores either. She was suddenly very aware of her thin nightdress and the open balcony doors facing the tall, vined wall which ran alongside Via Giulia’s cobbled roadside. A few floors up, she had become accustomed to leaving them open during the summer months.
A rush of air behind her, and she realised her mistake. ‘Don’t make a sound,’ hissed a voice in her ear, as she was dragged across the floor to the bedroom. The door was kicked open to reveal the terrified face of her husband on the other side. Sitting up in bed, he had been gagged and tied up, a tear of blood dripping from the side of his head where the gag cut into his skin. She wanted to scream, but a hand slapped over her mouth made sure she didn’t.
The hand moved and she felt a strip of material being placed over her mouth in its place. ‘Sit down,’ the voice hissed again. It didn’t sound quite Italian, some guttural accents tainting its otherwise perfect diction. Germans often spoke the language like this, and sometimes the British. With a burst of strength she struggled against the strong hands which pushed her down on the bed.
She fell against the headboard, fighting the nausea which rose in her mouth. Her bones ached.
Looking up at her assailant, her eyes met three pairs of blue eyes. Suits, like the Mormons sometimes wore, she thought. Under other circumstances she would have thought them respectable young men.
Another slap and she fell backwards against her husband. ‘Now, listen carefully and you won’t get hurt,’ said one of the suits. Her eyes rested on his small diamond-shaped tiepin which gleamed in the darkness. ‘We are going to ask you an important question, and you will be given one chance to answer it.’
Salvatore shifted on the bed next to her. The youngest and tallest of the three, strode round to his side of the bed and punched him hard in the stomach. She closed her eyes as he wretched onto the bed sheets between them.
The other suit was still talking. ‘We know that you have something in your possession that we need. Tell us where it is, and you will not get hurt.’
We are already hurt, thought Vera, desperate to comfort her husband who was shaking next to her. His body was frail and diseased, and she wondered if another punch might kill him.
‘A document was hidden in this apartment hundreds of years ago and we have reason to believe it is still here. You would have come across it by now, I’m sure…you’ve lived here, what, ten years now?’
Vera shook her head. She couldn’t think of any age-old documents. The only papers they had here were those of their treasured books and their household administration.
The second man bared his teeth at her.
‘It’s an astrological chart. You know what that is, right? A circle shape with planetary symbols marked on it. It has the name Michel de Nostradame written on it somewhere.’ He took a step towards the bed and Vera saw that his eyes were bloodshot.
She shook her head again.
‘Maybe he knows,’ said the man, pointing at her husband.
Vera closed her eyes. ‘Get up!’ yelled the last of the trio. He, also, was tall and clean-shaven, sporting another of those diamond-shaped tiepins. He reached out and pulled her off the bed. Stumbling, she struggled to get to her feet.
Another shove, and she fell by the bedroom doorway. Not daring to look at her husband, she got up once more and tried to shuffle forwards, at least making the appearance of showing the men what they wanted to see. Maybe that way she would be able to lead them away from Salvatore, maybe he would manage to raise the alarm somehow. Behind her, the tallest of the trio, and, she supposed, the leader, exhaled sharply.
‘Where is it then?’
She tried to turn round, but he slapped her full across her cheek.
‘Face forwards. When you get to where the document is hidden, stop and nod.’
She knew she was running out of options. With no idea what they were talking about, she could only hope she could lead them a wild goose chase for long enough for help to arrive. But as she walked slowly through her flat, she could hear nothing but the normal sounds of Roman night time: traffic on the Lungotevere, voices mingling, carrying over from the nearest cafe a couple of streets away, the sound of a TV on too loud somewhere else in the block. Then, footsteps outside on the street. She stopped, but another blow to the head reminded her they were alone with maniacs. The footsteps passed.
When they came full circle, she stopped by her writing desk in the bedroom and nodded.
The second man stepped forward. ‘Stupid woman’s just lead us round the flat for nothing.’
‘Never mind,’ snapped the first. ‘Get to work.’
The two men started to rifle through the desk, as the third stood guard over her husband, who appeared to have lost consciousness, his eyes shut and mouth lolling open as he lay sprawled on the bed. When they didn’t find anything, the second man overturned the desk and threw the chair against the wall.
‘Careful,’ hissed the first. ‘We don’t want to alert the neighbours.’
Silence fell as his colleague straightened up. ‘They’re not going to tell us where it is,’ he said. Vera closed her eyes and waited, but the expected slap never came. Instead, she was pushed back on the bed and tied to the headboard next to her husband, under the watchful eye of the third suit, whilst the other two disappeared into the rest of the apartment. She heard sickening splintering noises and could only imagine what they were doing to her home and her prized possessions. After several more minutes they returned. She kept her eyes shut, wondering if she could fall into unconscious oblivion like her husband, anything to make the ordeal more bearable.
‘Nothing here,’ one of them said and her eyes flew open. The second man had advanced upon her, his fists clenched by his sides. As he raised his hand above her, she thought of her family, now so far away, and wondered if she would ever see them again. With the first blow her vision darkened. She reached out to grab the man by the tie, but as further blows rained down on her head, her hand slipped away. With a gentle thud her unconscious body hit the ground.