Tuesday, May 5, 2020


In the morning, which for us arrives late, a wall of white fog seals the loggia of Villa Manigiacane. 

None of us had ever before seen anything so surrealistically astonishing in its blankness. 

Visibility:  Not one inch.

Breakfast is a buffet of smoked meat laid out in the kitchen.  (Fortunately, Boris’s dog is still barking outside.)

Boris is still around, evidenced by a brand-new Rolls-Royce with Monaco tags parked outside.  (He had told Natasha–along with the esteemed members of his Russian Intelligence dinner party—that Monaco’s sovereign prince had given him the fancy wheels for making it to this meeting. I knew this to be a ridiculous lie, later confirmed by the Prince, who identified for me the true owner of the vehicle.)

When we next look outside, the fog has cleared. 

A driver rolls us into Florence, where Van Stein sets an easel along the River Arno, turning his back on the famed Ponte Vecchio in favor of a view less traveled.

In the afternoon we motion to Siena, on this day half enveloped in fog, bestowing upon it a mystical quality exemplifying the thick texture and tapestry of Europe.  

Strolling through the 100 % marble Duomo, no question in our collective minds that Italy is the place to look up angels and devils. 

Or they will find you.

The Villa Mangiacane is quiet on our return.  Boris and Igor and the others have departed.  

Natasha dashes to the house computer, spends twenty minutes on the Internet.

“What’s she doing?” Van Stein demands of me. He hasn’t trusted her for one second since the road trip began.

I shrug.  “Probably email.”

Van Stein shakes his head.  “She’s looking at sites.  Russian sites.”

“How do you know that?”

“I went on after she left.  The computer keeps a record of recent sites visited.  She visited a dozen in twenty minutes.”  

Like, now do you believe she’s a Russian spy?

“Do you have a record of the sites she surfed?”           

Maybe they are providing instructions.

Van Stein nods triumphantly.  “I’ve already e-mailed it to myself.”

(Turns out, the sites relate to esoteric topics:  magic, witchcraft and astrology.)

“Careful,” I say.  “Boris may have a keyboard logger.”

“A what?”

“Change your password.”

Later we motion back to Florence, to a restaurant called Ana Murate (The Walls), a name deriving from its ancient frescoes, uncovered by accident during a paint-stripping renovation.  

Centuries earlier these were judges’ chambers—and quite likely where Machiavelli was condemned to exile.

At dinner, we gift Van Stein with a special pen:  a limited-edition Van Gogh, produced by Visconti of Florence. 

“Is it bugged?” says Van Stein, looking at Natasha.

“You would like, Chatka?  This is Natasha’s pet name for the artist, a Russian word that means hat, as Van Stein is rarely without a baseball cap to crown his thinning pate.

“Time to call Boris and report in.”

“Nonsense.”  Natasha points to the implant scar on her left temple.  “He already hears.”           

JL, egged on by Van Stein, engages Natasha, looks her directly in the eye.  “Who are you working for?”  Then he looks at me, somewhat befuddled.  “Wait a minute, who am I working for?”

“Be careful, Toy-Boy,” says Natasha, though JL’s nickname is actually Muttley, bestowed upon him by Van Stein and myself due to his snickering wheeze of a laugh when he farts.

A chef’s taster menu delights us; much mirth and merriment ensues, while Van Stein sketches the frescoes and Natasha waxes covert and Toy-Boy turns philosophical.  

“My father, Bernard, who died when I was twelve, gave me two bits of advice,” says Toy-Boy.  “Coincidence is the form God takes to remain incognito.”  He stops.

“And the other?” I ask.

“Trust me, son, condoms don’t work.”

Outside, the word angels, accented with a halo, is reflected from somewhere onto the pavement.

We return to Villa Mangiacane at midnight. 

Erica, who resides in the gatehouse, unlocks the villa, sees us in.

And Machiavelli’s old home is ours alone to explore. 

Van Stein takes a number of photographs, until dear Niccolo appears in an orb, with a facial expression that says, “Oops, got me!” 

Other orbs join the party:  Vincent, Dymphna, and Dali… 

“We need candles and matches,” says Van Stein, creating a still life:  ten candles, forming a circle around a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, his new Van Gogh pen and a glass of red wine.  

Twice the artist stops to stand back for perspective.  Twice, a music-stand near the table shudders, not stopping until Van Stein is beckoned back to the easel. 

You’re not finished–keep painting!

When the picture is finally complete, past four in the morning, Van Stein discovers he has inexplicably painted an extra candle.

For Machiavelli, perhaps.