“Ciccio, but why do you jump out of the dark at me? You nearly frightened me into an attack of my heart!”
“I am sorry Signor Morucchio, but I must to know where is the American that was with you yesterday.”
Andrea was incensed. Who did this, this Marocchino think that he was anyway?
“I do not know and I would not tell you if I did! Go away!”
Ciccio reached and grabbed Andrea by the arm firmly and said,
“Signor Morucchio, you do not understand the problems I am in. I need to know where he is to stay. Now!”
Andrea jerked his arm away from him.
“But who are you anyway to demand these things of me? Are you now to repay my kindness to you by becoming so familiar with me?”
Ciccio was desperate. It did not matter if he offended Andrea who had treated him generously. His life was at stake, of this he was sure. He continued to insist.
“Signor Morucchio, I apologize if I have frightened you, but it is most important. Please, do you know where the American stays? Will he come to you today? I must speak to him!”
Andrea could see that Ciccio was quite terrified. He wasn’t sure why, and he did not understand the reasons. But he was not without conscience or a heart. Whatever it was, it was important to Ciccio.
“How should I know if he will come here or not? I am not his mother! I think I know where he stays but I don’t think it would be proper for me to tell you!”
“Please then,” Ciccio pleaded. “Would you give him a message? Tell him I must have the bag that he purchased. I will give him another. Anyone he chooses. But I must have that one back! Tell him to meet me at the church of San Marco behind the gold screen at 6:00 p.m. tonight. Please. I beg you!”
Andrea spent the morning with Gabriella going over the inventory of his stock and had forgotten of his conversation with Ciccio. It wasn’t until nine in the morning when the small bell on his door announced the arrival of a customer and he looked up to see that Martin had come back to visit him, that he eventually remembered.
“Ciao Martin!” He exclaimed, genuinely glad to see him.
Martin waved his gloved hand at the two.
“Hello…” He said cheerily. “I thought to come and offer you coffee this morning, if you have time.”
Andrea paused only for a moment before he responded,
“Yes, certainly!” He turned to Gabriella as he grabbed his coat and said, “Gabriella please mind the boutique and finish as much of the inventory as you can until I return.”
“Si, Signor Morucchio.” She answered and then grumbled under her breath. “One day… one day.”
“Cosa Gabriella?” Andrea inquired sternly.
“Niente Signor. Vai pure.” She said as she averted her eyes from his.
Andrea glowered at her. He knew that she had said something derogatory but he had not heard it clearly.
“Come Martin.” He continued turning his attentions back to his new friend. The two of them exited the store and as they rounded the corner where Ciccio normally stood, Andrea recalled the morning’s event.
“Oa, Martin, I must tell you… the Marocchino, Ciccio, the street vendor from yesterday, has asked me to tell you that there is a problem with the purse you have bought.” He looked to see that Ciccio was not in his usual station. “Madonna but where is he if it is so important? Ma!” He griped as he continued to walk toward the bar and a morning coffee. “Anyway, he asks that you return the bag you purchased from him. I don’t know why but it seemed very important and he was quite insistent.”
“Yeah, sure… I mean, I guess I don’t mind.” Martin replied. He thought for a moment. What had he done with it?
“And that!” Andrea complained. “If I were you, I should not care about it. It is yours. You paid a fair price for it and in any case I am close to make a complaint to the Police about this man. Do you know he jumped out at me this morning from the darkness, demanding to know your hotel, as if I should know where it is that you have stayed, and nearly frightened me to death? Even if I had known you would return here this morning, I don’t think I would have told him. He was very bold with his familiar impudence!” Andrea exclaimed in indignation.
Martin paused in the street just long enough to think. He certainly remembered buying the bag. He remembered the argument between Andrea and the vendor as they haggled over the price and he remembered not wanting the purse with the big scratch on it, but for the life of him, after all that had transpired the day before, he could not recall returning to his hotel with it. What had he done with it? Was it really that important? Maybe…
Andrea interrupted his wandering train of thought.
“Why does he want it back?” He answered, startled from his reverie as he trotted the few steps to catch up.
“Who can say? These are men of… how should I say… strange ways although…” Andrea paused thoughtfully, “he seemed to be genuinely nervous over it. No, not nervous… afraid, yes, he was afraid. Peculiar…” His voice trailed off aimlessly.
“Well, I guess I don’t mind giving it back, I mean, I can get another one. I see these guys all over Venice and they all sell pretty much the same stuff.”
“Well,” Andrea huffed as they walked, “it is your choice Martin but I would not return it to him without a refund or a suitable substitute and it seems to me to be a great trouble.”
“Well if it is so important, why is he not here waiting for you? Ah, but then I guess he had no way to know if you would return. Oa, si, butI have forgotten; he told me if I should see you that he would wait for you in the Basilica of San Marco near to the gold screen at the alter tonight at six and he would make an exchange for you there.”
“Okay. I don’t care.” Martin’s face brightened. “Oh, my God! I was in the square last night! What an extraordinary place! I don’t think I have ever been anywhere that was so beautiful!”
Andrea took Martin’s arm as they walked. It was the same reaction that everyone had the first time they viewed the magnificent Living Room of the World. It was a sight that would be indelibly etched on Martin’s mind just as it was on the minds of thousands every year, as it was on Andrea’s mind.
Ciccio spent the day wrapped in a rough wool blanket, shivering, literally sick with fear. He knew that he should have waited outside Andrea’s shop to see if the American would return but try as he might he could not keep his knees from knocking together like a man delirious with fever. His compatriots had tried to comfort him but secretly they all knew that Ciccio was in grave danger and there was nothing they could do to help him. They could try to defend him, to oppose Bruno Trevisani, the feared Lion of Venice, after all he was only one man but there was something supernaturally evil about him. He had put the evil eye on all of them! They were still ministering to Bepi who would suffer from his injuries for days to come. To whom would they turn? The Police? That was laughable! The Police would sooner deport them altogether rather than take a complaint from them and they had tried in the past. There had been others who had suffered a greater fate than a simple beating, of that they were sure because these men disappeared! The Police had done nothing! And there had been punishment for complaining to the Police! Two successive Capo’s had vanished within days of each other, snatched into thin air, and Bruno Trevisani had told them that a similar complaint would bring even greater suffering than a simple disappearance to those who pursued another complaint to the Police. “Better to do as you are told and go home with money for your wives and children” He said. Who was this devil and his employer that they could make a fellow vanish as if he had never existed? La gamba del mare, the leg of the sea! It was a phrase used to torment them! During the Great War, the Germans told their children that if they did not behave themselves, they would go up with the smoke of the chimney; furtively referring to the ghastly fate of the Jews in the death camps during the holocaust but even smoke leaves an evidence. The men who had gone to ‘the leg of the sea’ left nothing of themselves except memories and families!
So, Ciccio sat shivering and his friends made him heavy black tea sweetened with honey. They would search for the American as best they could, each from their corners in Venice but more than that they dared not do for the Lion had eyes everywhere; he had convinced them of that and though they cared for Ciccio, they would not risk their own lives for him.
Martin had spent the remainder of the day wandering aimlessly about, sampling coffees and pastries, wondering at the majesty of Venice. At every corner he was amazed. At every turn he was surprised. It occurred to him that he could spend weeks or even years in Venice and never see half of all that there was. He had eaten a fine meal of fish and crusty bread in a restaurant in some back alley. His table was located near a window that overlooked a small canal and he was thrilled to watch the Gondola’s drift lazily past as he ate. He listened with rapt attention as the Gondolieri called out to each other; as they worked their oars in the intricately carved forcole, shoving their shiny black skiffs ahead with every stroke of the sinewy arms. He was again tempted to sample some of the wines or even a dark frothy beer but he knew that he couldn’t. His vacation was perfect, his life, for the first time in weeks, years seemed perfect and he dared not run it all afoul with alcohol. It was a common mistake and temptation among alcoholics: straighten out your life, begin to experience what it is to live sanely, and then fool yourself into thinking that you can handle the bottle too. But he would not fool himself, not today.
Martin had never known what it was to be pleasantly idle. He had always equated inactivity with sloth so he had remained busy and he had ‘busied’ his life away! It was only now in the serene confines of what surely must be God’s elaborately furnished sitting parlor that he was coming to appreciate that one could be idle and it could be more than simply enjoyable or healthy… it could be precious! “How rejuvenating!” He thought to himself as he fairly skipped along through the lonely streets! Rain, gloom, shine, it was all the same! Life! Living! It was worth it after all! Bill had been right… the sly bastard! He would have to purchase a nice gift for him. Maybe something of gold and Janet too… Janet, gift… what time was it? He looked at his watch. It was nearly four forty five! Good God! He had dreamed the whole day away! He paused… How wonderful! To dream the day away… how marvelous! But he had to meet Ciccio at the Basilica and tell him that he did not have the bag. He was not going to return to his hotel to get it now anyway. Besides, he couldn’t even remember what he had done with it. Had he taken it back to his room in the Bel Sito? He tried to remember. Did he have it with him when he came in that first night? Had he laid it down next to his suitcase? He tried to remember if he saw it that morning, when he had awakened. Had he tripped over it on the way to the small bathroom? No… he had tripped over his own luggage case. The harder he concentrated, the more the thought eluded him. Well it was of little concern right? How important could it really be?
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.
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