The Italian Job 2 – The Brief

I got a telephone call from Mrs White, a client of some standing, who lives out in Sunningdale in Berkshire.  She had a little job that she wanted me to do and wanted to talk it through with me.

I know Sunningdale quite well, because my mate Billy used to live there before he moved to France and BIL1 and his wife dawn live in the next “Village” of Windelsham.  I say “Next” and “Village”, but in truth they are not villages at all and apart from a sign post on the tree lined A30 there is no reason to believe you have left one place and entered another.  It is an affluent area and somebody once told me that this part of Surrey/Berkshire had the highest concentration of wealth per km2 in Europe.  I don’t know if that is fact or estate agent’s bollocks, but it certainly is a well healed kneck of the woods.

I took the train out from Waterloo and got a taxi to the clients address.  She is an elegant woman of 50ish.  Actually, she score pretty highly on the stroke-ability scale and gives the impression of being a dirty mix, not that I have ever confirmed my suspicions.  Never mix business and pleasure.  I digress.  Apparently she had been an opera singer and had been quite famous.  At about the time I was slogging my way across the delightful Falkland Islands, she was slumming it in the Opera houses of London, MIlan and Paris.  You have to feel for her!

Over a mug of Earl Grey she told me what she wanted me to do, and to be honest the job was really very simple.  Could I go to Italy (not far from Rome) and collect 3 paintings and a small sculpture and bring them back to the UK.  Now I have to say that I am not usually hired for the movement of arts and antiques, bearing in mind there are lots of specialist firms who do this sort of thing every day.  Plus I am sure that I was going to be expensive for the job and so I said so.

“Ah, yes Mr Norman, but you see two of the paintings are Picassos, the third is a Dali and the sculpture is very early Stephen Cox and quite small so rather valuable.” She explained

“Even so Mrs White I am sure that there are firms who specialise in this sort of thing and they would be much cheaper than me”

“Maybe, Mr Norman, but the thing is,  if I tell you I want the items here in say two days time you will have them here in two days time.  No whingeing and whining or delays with lorries and all that.  You will go to Italy get the things and bring them back.  You give them to me, I pay you.  Simple” She gave me a big smile to reinforce the point that is was that “simple”. “As it is Mr Norman there is no major rush, but if you could do it before end of the month it would be helpful, but if you can’t it is not a calamity”

I had deliberately not put too much into the diary for few weeks as I felt I needed a bit of down time so knew that I could easily do it by the end of the month.  I did some calculations to work out a time frame for the job.  A day travelling either end, a day to do the pick up, a day for cock ups/sightseeing and to ensure the items were all packaged properly.  Four days work, plus expenses plus profit.  I said I could do it and would try to have her things with her in about ten days and gave her a ball park price,  which I have to say was not cheap and said I would have to confirm it later.  She did not bat an eye lid and said it was fine and we would finalise the details in the next 24 hours.

We spent the next 30 minutes chatting about this that and the other when were interrupted by  the door bell.  It was the gardener.  He was a big bloke at least 6’4″ tall, built like a brick shit house, about my age but with a very distinct upper class accent.  Gardener? I think not!  True  he had a flatbed truck outside and was dressed as if he had fallen out of a bush or taken fashion tips from Wurzel Gummidge, but he was no gardener.  However before my taxi had arrived old Wurzel was out attacking the flora like a man possessed and to be fair, the garden looked magnificent.

I could have gone round to the BIL1 but to be honest the idea of swapping small talk with his bilious wife Dawn did not fil me with Joy.  Had the kids been there I would have plucked up the courage to face the lioness in her den, but I really could not be arsed.  so I went home instead and and worked out flight costs, car hire, hotels and all that sort of stuff.

I rang Mrs White with the definitive price.

“That’s fine just do it as soon as you can” She sounded very curt, which was not like her.

“Are You alright Mrs White?”

“Yes fine thank you I will pay you 50% now and the rest on delivery ring me later to talk details” and she hung up.

Very odd.

My next port of call was to go to Reading and to see a man whose farther in law had gone missing.  I rang him and arranged to see him the next day.

I headed out to Reading on the Train from Paddington.  It only takes about 30 minutes or so and gave me quick chance the flick through a Private Eye I had picked up at the station.  My taxi took me to a quite and elegant house not far from the University, where I was met by Mr James my contact.  Mr James was about 60 and was tall, lean with grey, well kept wavy hair.

From the outside the house was almost twee, but inside it was a very comfy family home and had that homely lived in feel, that immediately puts you at ease and makes you feel safe and protected.   It smelt of coffee and weekend breakfast.  I don’t mean it stank of cooking but warm cosy yummy Saturday things from when you were a kid.  When I was kid no doubt there would have been Junior choice on the radio with Ed Stewpot, but times move on.  Old git that I am.

There were a couple of teenagers there who were introduced themselves as being Daniel (age 19) and Sophie (17).  I could hear the sounds of smaller children and Daniel called them into say hello.  Sally was 13 and Mickey almost 11, they came in shook hands and introduced themselves.  Mr James came in with is wife – Maria and joined the family group.  The word to describe Maria James is WOW.  She was about 5’10 in height jet black hair, large brown eyes, olive skin, and a fabulous figure.  Not skinny, but not fat and very very pretty.  No that does not do her justice,  the best person I can liken her to is Raquel Welch in her hey day.  I would have said she was about 50, but i found out later that I was not even close on the age. Anyway, I put my tongue away and stopped drooling over the floor and we sat round the dining table with a cup of tea and a large plate of chocolate hobnobs – a particular favourite of mine.

It was Mr James who opened the family meeting “We are really grateful you could spare the time to see us at such short notice.  Its my father in law, he has left home”

“You say left home, do you have any idea where he may have gone?” I asked

“Oh yes” chipped in Sophie “He is in Italy”

“Yes South of Rome” said Mr James

“OK how do you know that?” I asked a little taken a back at the progress this missing persons job had suddenly taken.

“From his credit card” Said Mrs James.

“OK, why don’t we start at the beginning.  One of you tell me the broad story and then we can fill in any gaps as we go along” I said

Everyone looked at Daniel

“Go ahead Daniel, you tell Mr Norman the story your closest to Granddad” said Mr James.  I was impressed that it should be one of the grandchildren to be given opportunity to deal with what I am sure was an upsetting ordeal.  The whole family had an air of unity and solidarity about it.  I might be talking total utter bollocks, but I think this kind of respect and cohesion is rare.

“Sorry” Said Daniel “Just Granddad is such a great bloke and he has not been himself for some time, and then without a word of warning he just took off.  We feared the worse and then we checked his bank account on line and saw he had bought a flight to Italy and hired a car and then made payments and cash with drawls.”

“Are you sure its your granddad?”

“As sure as we can be, the amounts are not large and they are in hotels and restaurants, there is nothing obviously untoward”  He said.  “I have done a schedule of what has been spent where which I can give you”

Again I was impressed.

Daniel Continued “At the end of last year Granddad started getting anxious and fretful.  He kept saying he needed to speak to someone called Carllo Alato.  I think that’s what he said, but the problem was he mumbled it like he really didn’t want us to hear.” He paused “Then in January and February it got worse.  Feb was really bad and on the 15th He went to London to go to the catholic Cathedral”

“I take it he is not a Catholic then?”

“No, he is a Methodist of sorts” said Mrs James “The funny thing is, that he always went to a Catholic service on the 15th February without fail.  I don’t know why and he would never say”

“Anyway” said Daniel taking up his thread again “By March he was sleeping badly and very distressed and then as suddenly as it started it stopped.  We all though that it was over and then a few weeks ago it started again, but it was worse and then bingo one morning he had gone leaving a note saying it was something very important and not to worry”

“I suppose before we go any further I should ask your fathers name” I said to Mrs James

“Oh yes sorry its Hawthorn, Clark Hawthorn”

“Clark?” I said

“Yes, why?” asked Mrs James.

“Just a slightly odd Christian name for an Englishman of your fathers generation, that’s all, no reason, I just don’t think I have come across another one who was not American”

I started asking questions about family friends etc.  Despite then obvious affection from his immediate family  he was very much a loner and they didn’t really know that much about him.  He was born in 1918 which made him about 89.  His first wife had died during child birth when Mrs James was born during the war, but they did not know much about her.  So in fact the hot Mrs James was in her sixties. Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs,  I have to tell you she didn’t look it.  Maybe Its a sign that I am getting old but I have never knowingly fancied shagging a pensioner before.  No offence to any pensioners reading.

Anyway Mr Hawthorn had not remarried, although he had been something of a ladies man and had had a succession of lady friends.  He was an academic and had studied architecture and structural engineering at Oxford before and after the war.  Sometime in the fifties he had gone into the Civil Service and had worked in London.  He liked to travel and was a keen fly fisherman and golfer.  However what was odd was that when I really tried to find out what he was like I got the impression nobody really knew.  Maybe its common that we don’t know mega amounts about the elderly members of our families or maybe we just cannot quite put the bits of jigsaw that make up their lives together.  Try it for yourself, how much do you really know about your parents or grandparents?  Maybe we should ask them more about what they have done and seen in their lives.

They gave me some photos of a distinguished looking man with a twinkle in his eye.  He looked more like Mr James than Mrs.  A lean but muscular face with toothbrush moustache,  piercing blue eyes and fairly thick grey hair.  He reminded me of, and I stress he reminded me of and did not look Clark Gabel.  How odd another Clark, maybe it was the name!

The family showed me Mr Hawthorns self contained flat at the back of the house.  It had a bedroom, reasonable size living room with a small kitchenette, a small bathroom and a little sort of courtyard garden.  It was very agreeable and very clean and tidy.  There was roll top desk and when I opened it, found it to be immaculately tidy.  I would have said too tidy.  There was a jotter pad and some doodles and notes which were in very fancy handwriting.  One of things I noticed was the name Cavallo Alato. it was jotted down a couple of times along with Cratego, but apart from that there was not much.  I will come clean and tell you my Italian aint so hot.  I can get a room for the night some grub and am rather partial to both Peroni and Nastro Azzuri beer, but that’s about it.

They also gave me the schedule of where Mr Hawthorn had been spending money.  Nothing odd, flights, car hire, meals and a hotel in the town of Cassino.

“Can I ask you why you have not gone to get him yourself?” I asked

There was shuffling of feet and they all looked a bit embarrassed.  “His note said not to come and he would disown us if we did” said Mrs James “He could be very harsh and strict sometimes, he loved us all but he is not an affectionate man in the sort of modern gushy kind of way” she looked me directly in the eyes.  “Somebody gave us your details and said that they thought you were a younger version of my father, not to look at maybe, but in manner and thinking.  I think you might be able to find out what is wrong and get him to come home”

“What if he doesn’t want to come home?” I asked

“We will respect his wishes, just make sure he is alright and we can work round it.  He must be Ok and happy” She said.

I started to tell her my fees and she held up a hand.  “Mr Norman, my father has been good to me all my life.  I have wanted for nothing and I am not about to repay that by worrying about how much it will cost me to make sure he is OK.  I would just like you to go as soon as you can cost does not come into it”


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