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TUESDAY, MAY 9
LAKE COMO, ITALY
Cotton Malone studied the execution site.
A little after 4:00 P.M., on the afternoon of April 28, 1945, Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci were gunned down just a few feet away from where he stood. In the decades since, the entrance to the Villa Belmonte, beside a narrow road that rose steeply from Azzano about half a mile below, had evolved into a shrine. The iron gate, the low wall, even the clipped hedges were still there, the only change from then being a wooden cross tacked to the stone on one side of the gate that denoted Mussolini’s name and date of death. On the other side he saw another addition—a small, glass-fronted wooden box that displayed pictures of Mussolini and Claretta. A huge wreath of fresh flowers hung from the iron fence above the cross. Its banner read EGLI VIVRÀ PER SEMPRE NEL CUORE DEL SUO POPOLO.
He will always live in the hearts of people.
Down in the village he’d been told where to find the spot and that loyalists continued to venerate the site. Which was amazing, considering Mussolini’s brutal reputation and the fact that so many decades had passed since his death.
What a quandary Mussolini had faced.
Italy languishing in a state of flux. The Germans fast retreating. Partisans flooding down from the hills. The Allies driving hard from the south, liberating town after town. Only the north, and Switzerland, had offered the possibility of a refuge.
Which never happened.
He stood in the cool of a lovely spring morning.
Yesterday, he’d taken an afternoon flight from Copenhagen to the Milan–Malpensa Airport, then driven a rented Alfa Romeo north to Lake Como. He’d splurged on the sports car, since who didn’t like driving a 237-horsepowered engine that could go from zero to sixty in four seconds. He’d visited Como before, staying at the stunning Villa d’Este during an undercover mission years ago for the Magellan Billet. One of the finest hotels in the world. This time the accommodations would not be anywhere near as opulent.
He was on special assignment for British intelligence, working freelance, his target an Italian, a local antiques dealer who’d recently crept onto MI6’s radar. Originally his job had been a simple buy and sell. Being in the rare-book business provided him with a certain expertise in negotiating for old and endangered writings. But new information obtained last night had zeroed in on a possible hiding place, so the task had been modified. If the information proved correct, his orders were now to steal the items.
He knew the drill.
Buying involved way too many trails and, until yesterday, had been MI6’s only option. But if what they wanted could be appropriated without paying for it, then that was the smart play. Especially considering that what they were after did not belong to the Italian offering it for sale.
He had no illusions.
Twelve years with the Magellan Billet, and a few more after that working freelance for various intelligence agencies, had taught him many lessons. Here he knew he was being paid to handle a job and take the fall if anything went wrong. Which was incentive enough not to make any mistakes.
The whole thing, though, seemed intriguing.
In August 1945 Winston Churchill had arrived in Milan under the cover name of Colonel Warden. Supposedly he’d decided to vacation along the shores of Lakes Como, Garda, and Lugano. Not necessarily a bad decision since people had been coming to the crystal Alpine waters for centuries. The use of a code name ensured a measure of privacy, but by then Churchill was no longer Britain’s prime minister, having been unceremoniously defeated at the polls.
His first stop was the cemetery in Milan where Mussolini had been hastily buried. He’d stood at the grave, hat in hand, for several minutes. Strange considering the deceased had been a brutal dictator and a war enemy. He’d then traveled north to Como, taking up residence at a lakeside villa. Over the next few weeks the locals spotted him out gardening, fishing, and painting. No one at the time gave it much thought, but decades later historians began to look hard at the journey. Of course, British intelligence had long known what Churchill was after.
Between him and Mussolini.
They’d been lost at the time of Mussolini’s capture, part of a cache of documents in two satchels that were never seen after April 27, 1945. Rumors were that the local partisans had confiscated them. Some say they were turned over to the communists. Others pointed to the Germans. One line of thought proclaimed that they had been buried in the garden of the villa Churchill had rented.
Nobody knew anything for sure.
But something in August 1945 had warranted the intervention of Winston Churchill himself.
Cotton climbed back into the Alfa Romeo and continued his drive up the steep road. The villa where Mussolini and his mistress had spent their last night still stood somewhere nearby. He’d read the many conflicting accounts of what had happened on that fateful Saturday. Details still eluded historians. In particular, the name of the executioner had been clouded by time. Several ultimately claimed the honor, but no one knew for sure who’d pulled the trigger. Even more mysterious was what had happened to the gold, jewels, currency, and documents Mussolini had intended to take to Switzerland. Most agree that a portion of the wealth had been dumped into the lake, as local fishermen later found gold there after the war. But as with the documents, no meaningful cache had ever come to light. Until two weeks ago, when an email arrived at the British embassy in Rome with an image of a scanned letter.
From Churchill to Mussolini.
More communications followed, along with four more images. No sale price had been arrived at for the five. Instead, Cotton was being paid 50,000 euros for the trip to Como, his negotiating abilities, and the safe return of all five letters.
The villa he was after sat high on a ridge, just off the road that continued on to the Swiss border about six miles away. All around him rose forests where partisans had hidden during the war, waging a relentless guerrilla campaign on both the fascists and the Germans. Their exploits were legendary, capped by the unexpected triumph in capturing Mussolini himself.
For Italy, World War II ended right here.
He found the villa, a modest three-story rectangle, its stone stained with mold and topped by a pitched slate roof set among tall trees. Its many windows caught the full glare of the early-morning sun, the yellow limestone seeming to drain of color as it basked in the bright light. Two white porcelain greyhounds flanked the main entrance. Cypress trees dotted a well-kept yard along with topiary, both of which seemed mandatory for houses around Lake Como.
He parked in front and climbed out to a deep quiet.
The foothills kept rising behind the villa where the road continued its twisted ascent. To the east, through more trees sprouting spring flecks of green, he caught the dark-blue stain of the lake, perhaps half a mile away and a quarter of that below. Boats moved silently back and forth across its mirrored surface. The air was noticeably cooler and, from the nearby garden, he caught a waft of wisteria.
He turned to the front door and came alert.
The thick wooden panel hung partially open.
White gravel crunched beneath his feet as he crossed the drive and stopped short of entering. He gave the door a little push and swung it open, staying on his side of the threshold. No electronic alarms went off inside. Nobody appeared. But he immediately spotted a body sprawled across the terrazzo, facedown, a crimson stain oozing from one side.
He carried no weapon. His intel had said that the house should be empty, its owner away until the late afternoon. MI6 had not only traced the emails it had received but also managed to compose a quick dossier on the potential seller. Nothing about him signaled a threat.
He entered and checked the body for a pulse.
He looked around.
The rooms were pleasant and spacious, the papered walls ornamented with huge oil paintings, dark with age. Smells of musty flowers, candle wax, and tobacco floated in the air. He noticed a large walnut desk, rosewood melodeon, silk brocade sofas and chairs. Intricate inlaid armoires with glass fronts pressed the walls, one after the other, each loaded with objects on display like a museum.
But the place was in a shambles.
Drawers were half opened, tilted at crazy angles, shelves in disarray, a few of the armoires shattered, chairs flung upside down to the floor, some slashed and torn. Even some of the drapes had been pulled from their hangings and lay in crumpled heaps.
Somebody had been looking for something.
Nothing broke the silence save a parrot in a gilded cage that had once stood on a marble pedestal. Now the cage lay on the floor, battered and smashed, the pedestal overturned, the bird uttering loud, excited screeches.
He rolled the body over and noticed two bullet wounds. The victim was in his mid- to late forties, with dark hair and a clean-shaven face. The villa’s owner was about the same age, but this corpse did not match the description he’d been given.
Hard and loud.
Then heavy footsteps.
Somebody was still here.
The hiding place he sought was located on the third floor, so he headed for the staircase and climbed, passing the second-floor landing. A carpet runner lined the stone risers and cushioned his leather soles, allowing no sound to betray his movement. At the third floor he heard more commotion, like a heavy piece of furniture slamming the floor. Whoever was searching seemed oblivious to any interruption.
He decided on a quick peek to assess things.
He crept ahead.
A narrow green runner ran down the center of the corridor’s wood floor. At the far end a half-opened window allowed in the morning sun and a breeze. He came to the room where the noise originated, the same room he’d been directed to find. Whoever had beaten him here was well informed. He stopped at the open doorway and risked a quick glance.
And saw a stout bear.
Several hundred pounds, at least.
The source of the crash was evident from an armoire that lay overturned. The animal was exploring, swiping odds and ends off the tables, smelling everything as it clattered down. It stood facing away, toward one of the two half-open windows.
He needed to leave.
The bear stopped its foraging and raised its head, sniffing.
The animal caught his scent, turned, and faced him, snorting a growl.
He had a split second to make a decision.
Normally you dealt with bears by standing your ground, facing them down. But that advice had clearly been offered by people who’d never been this close to one. Should he head back toward the stairs? Or dart into the room across the hall? One mistake on the way down to the ground floor and the bear would overtake him. He opted for the room across the hall and darted left, entering just as the animal rushed forward in a burst of speed surprising for its size. He slammed the door shut and stood inside a small bedroom, a huge porcelain stove filling one corner. Two more windows, half open, lined the outer wall, which faced the back of the villa.
He needed a second to think.
But the bear had other ideas.
The door crashed inward.
He rushed to one of the windows and glanced out. The drop was a good thirty feet. That was at least a sprained ankle, maybe a broken bone or worse. The bear hesitated in the doorway, then roared.
Which sealed the deal.
He noticed a ledge just below the window, about eight inches wide. Enough to stand on. Out he went, flattening his hands against the warm stone, his spine pressed to the house. The bear charged the window, poking its head out, swiping a paw armed with sharp claws. He edged his way to the left and maneuvered himself out of range.
He doubted the animal was going to climb out.
But that didn’t solve his problem.
What to do next.
Copyright © 2019 by Steve Berry