The plane touched down two hours after leaving Gatwick Airport. It was something of an ordeal getting through customs with false passports and several weapons, but after Miguel caused a distraction, Miranda and Rosemary managed to slip through inspection with a minimum of fuss, most of the security staff seemed rather tired and unobservant. The rest of them were preoccupied with chasing Miguel through the corridors. He gave them the slip shortly afterwards, and joined his friends for a coffee, before they picked up an arranged rental car and headed for the coast.
‘You seem to be thoroughly enjoying yourself.’ Rosemary remarked to her husband as they sped along the coastal road.
‘Of course I am. It’s great fun being me.’
The group soon arrived in the city of Sorrento, which was bathed in golden sunlight. The taxi stopped outside a large villa on the outskirts of town.
‘Why have stopped here Miguel?
‘We’re here to visit an old friend of mine, who may be able to help us. One who always has his ear to the street.’
‘You mean a…’
‘I try not to get on his bad side.’
They left the car and knocked three times on the villa door. A small Italian woman opened the door with a frown, before spotting Rosemary and beaming enormously.
‘Hey, bella, where have you been? We haven’t seen you for three years.’ She embraced her before turning on Miguel and berating him in Italian. Miranda stifled a giggle.
‘And who is this?’ the woman asked in heavily accented English.
‘This is Miranda; she’s a very good friend of ours.’ The woman smiled warmly and kissed Miranda on both cheeks. As she lead the guests through the house towards the back garden, Miguel whispered something to her in Italian.
‘Miranda èla moglie de Fortuno.’
The woman looked at the haggard guest and crossed herself.
‘Madonn’, il bambino compassionevole.’
On the patio, a man in a blue shirt and Panama hat was sitting on his deck chair, playing with two small children. There was a record player next to him, playing Antonio Prieto’s ‘La Novia’.
‘Hey Mario, Rosemary e il pagliaccio sono qui!’
The man turned in his chair. He was in his early sixties, but had a youthful exuberance and welcoming smile that helped shed several decades.
‘Well, this is a coincidence. Only the other day that ruffian son of yours decided to pay us a visit.’
‘Luke? You didn’t give him money did you?’
‘No, but Simona did have to save him from some very angry German tourists. Some little misunderstanding with their daughter.’
‘Like father like son.’ said Rosemary, and everyone laughed.
‘And how are your other children? The little ones giving you any trouble?’
‘It’s not them, we’re worried about, it’s Mia. Who ever invented the term ‘sweet sixteen’ has a very dark sense of humour.’
Cecchini laughed again and rose from his seat before gently shooing the children away.
‘Forgive me. My son Guido’s children.’ He kissed Miguel on both cheeks. ‘Miguel my friend, it’s been too long. Three years at least.’
‘Three years exactly.’ Miguel smiled. ‘I only hope you will accept…my apologies.’ He drew two bottles of dark red wine from his coat before placing them on the table beside the patio.
‘Bordeaux. ’47. Very good year. Thank you my friend. I shall save these for a special occasion.’
He turned to Rosemary, pinching her cheek and whispering something in her ear that made her giggle with delight.
‘And who is this beauty?’
He took Miranda’s hand and kissed it with perfect courtesy.
‘Mario Cecchini, this is Miranda Warwick.’
‘This is…’ Cecchini gesticulated to Miguel and said something hushed under his breath. Miguel nodded, before turning to the two women.
‘Now, ladies, Mr. Cecchini and I need to talk a little business, so why don’t you stay out here, make yourselves comfortable?’
Miranda and Rosemary happily agreed, and Mr. Cecchini fetched a second chair.
‘If you want anything, just call my wife.’
Cecchini and Miguel disappeared indoors into a lavish study on the upper floor of the villa, sitting down on two leather chairs placed either side of an oak desk. There was a set of glass doors on one side of the room that led to a balcony, looking out onto the tree tops below. Behind Cecchini’s head was a detailed portrait of a bearded sailor dressed in red, a gold handled cutlass in a scabbard at his side.
‘A new painting?’
‘We found it on our travels to Corsica last year. My great-great grandfather, apparently something of a pirate, provided supplies for Garibaldi during the wars. You wouldn’t suspect that pirate blood ran in these veins would you Miguel?’
‘I might have suspected.’ Miguel remarked wryly, casting another glance at the almost perfect likeness of Captain Sherman Fraser that hung on the wall. His host took a bottle of Grappa out from a small cabinet beneath the painting, and poured it out into two glasses.
‘Now… my intuition tells me you’ve not just come here for the weather and the wine. What can I help you with Miguel?’
‘What, a man can’t simply come to visit an old friend every once in a while?’
‘Mario… you’re a well-connected man.’ Miguel said, looking into his friend’s eyes and giving a wicked grin. Cecchini acknowledged the compliment by raising his glass. ‘I have reason to believe that there is a facility nearby… off the radar as it were… where several people are being held against their will. Maybe a school or academy of some sort?’
‘Hmm… there is only one facility I know of that fits your description, about five miles away… my cousin Giacomo makes deliveries there occasionally…but it is a private school, a respectable institution.’
‘Have you ever been inside?’
‘No. But I have met the owner; his name is Dr. Orphal. An Englishman, very genial, if a little withdrawn, he seems to be trustworthy.’
Miguel did not respond for a moment, choosing his words carefully.
‘I know you are an excellent judge of character… but I would still very much like to find out for myself.’
Cecchini frowned and poured another glass before offering it to Miguel. The sorcerer held up a hand politely.
‘Well, it would be difficult. Their regulations are very tight… the children of the very rich and powerful apparently go there… but I suppose that would not stop a man like you?’
‘You know me far too well Mario.’
He rose to go.
‘Are you sure you won’t stay, help me finish off the bottle? I was planning on sitting down with a glass on the porch; watching “Ricomincio da Tre”… Simona has just made some of her delightful ciabatta…’
Miguel gave a smile of regret and downed the rest of his glass.
‘Another time, my friend.’
Miguel found Rosemary playing with Cecchini’s grandchildren on the terrace, whilst Miranda was trying to hold a conversation with Mrs. Cecchini in somewhat broken Italian.
‘Are we leaving already?’ asked Rosemary, prompting complaints from the infants.
‘I’m afraid so.’
After saying their goodbyes, they returned to the car, which Miguel started before the two young women had time to get comfortable in their seats.
‘You couldn’t possibly go a little slower could you?’