"What a wonderful story. I was caught up in the plot from the opening and it only gets better as the plot progresses. I love the style. The dialogue is excellent and convincing. I read this book quickly and with excitement. Very well written and paced." Innes Garcia, Seattle WA
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Read the first chapter below.
Penny Lane goes to Italy
This is a tale about the very English (actually, Liverpudlian) Penny Lane Agency helping the venerable Italian Vespucci family pull off a bank robbery in Zürich. It’s not the sort of thing this family, any family, does but you will see they have a pressing reason. For the Agency it is another challenge they rise to with legendary attention to detail. This is why they are beloved by the Establishment, in this story, where matters of discretion are paramount.
The events take place over the course of a year not long ago. Since it is also a story of love, passion, jealousy, intrigue and drama in the time-honoured Italian manner I begin with a dramatis personæ.
Count Ferdinand Vespucci, a handsome widowed fifty-year old aristocrat. He is head of Pucci Pomodori (tomatoes) and Pucci Pasticceria (cakes and pastry), companies that are household names in Italy, in this story. He lives in a splendid villa near Bergamo in Lombardia in North-West Italy with his twin sons and domestici (servants) Cook and Lucciano. His servants are a double-act, as are,
Clementino and Ignatio Vespucci, the sons. The book is built around these huge characters and their problems with dwarfism, with being Little People. Clementino is older than his twin by twenty minutes and will inherit the title conte and estate at Bergamo. There is tension here.
Evasio Vespucci, Ferdinand’s younger brother who we don’t meet because he is cruising on his doctor’s orders. He is responsible for the senior Vespucci company, Pucci Moquette (carpets). It is in financial difficulty and is the main reason why a Vespucci loan to the Swiss bank in the 1940s must be repaid to the family.
Countess Anna, the dark and beautiful cousin who lives with her young son and man-servant in a Seventeenth-century palazzo in St. Moritz-Bad in Switzerland. She starts off the story in Zürich, entertains her cousin’s sons Clementino and Ignatio at Easter after their twenty-first birthday and shelters them after the August robbery. She also graces the Christmas party at the villa at the end of the story, the finale in fact.
Sophie and Gabrielle, the ragazze (girls) the boys are hopelessly - and I choose the word carefully - in love with. You won’t forget these young women either.
Then there are:
Saltzmann the Zürich banker. He is how you expect a banker to be.
Baron Rothenfelder, dyed-in-the-wool Nazi and boss of the thuggish neo-Nazi Stalhelm that controls the bank. The story is driven by Rothenfelder and the organization bent on bullying its way out of repaying the war-time loan made to the bank by Vespucci’s father. They think because the family is Italian it will not get its act together over the matter. Robbing banks is beyond even Vespucci eccentricity, hence,
Penny Lane, the Liverpool Lady, CEO of Penny Lane Agency whom Vespucci calls upon for technical support. He is acquainted with Miss Lane from their days at Oxford University when they fenced and occasionally took tea together. We assume she is eventually paid for her services in what is ostensibly Vespucci ingenuity.
Wilson, Miss Lane’s Italian-speaking assistant. He is worthy of a mention, since almost everything relating to this job, the robbery and escape with the spoils is effected by him.
Here then, is my tale Penny Lane goes to Italy beginning one recent February and ending on Christmas night the same year.
Snow fell for most of the drive from St. Moritz to Zürich that February morning. The journey was tedious but it provided the perfect excuse for missing the flight to New York. Anna played with her fur as she went over the plan of this ridiculous robbery once again. She was not a liar. An actor certainly but not a liar. She looked at her watch, instructed Emil to turn toward the city centre and inspected her face. She would normally have consulted her chauffeur on how she looked, he was after all her best critic but he had been bitchy all morning and she was not in an indulging mood.
Emil negotiated the Corniche through the heavy traffic along Bahnhofstraße into the town’s old quarter at the top of the lake. It was one o’clock as they drew up outside the grey anonymous frontage of one of the city’s two hundred banks. Emil set about buffing his nails, a thin smile gracing his lips. Though the contessa was not suited to her good name at risk once again, he had no reservations. When she made up her mind no-one stood a chance.
Wishing her luck, he chose then to suggest she had applied too much foundation.
“A heavy make-up called ‘Luck’ would have its uses ...” Anna responded sweetly. She could not think of any woman who could not use it regularly. “Yes, I like it. Put it in the Business Ideas book will you, Darling ...”
The Contessa Anna Raffino di Bergamo, Italian by birth now living in Switzerland, widowed and immensely wealthy stepped into the swirling snow of a winter afternoon before the marble portal of the Saltzmann Schweinchencommerzbank. She smiled in a predatory manner at the young employee who appeared with a large umbrella, drew the collar of her fur coat up to emphasise her eyes and made her entrance.
The bank’s owner and director-general Christian Saltzmann, a corpulent middle-aged man with a small moustache, stumbled on the stairs when he saw the countess. He greeted her with a salacious smile and indicated to his staff he would take charge. Though used to men fawning in her company, Anna considered this one weaker than most and even a practised smile was difficult to maintain.
She went through her story about missing the early flight to New York without elaboration. As she had explained earlier over the telephone she would prefer somewhere safer than a hotel for the overnight storage of valuable artefacts. The aluminium flight trunk she had brought with her from St. Moritz-Bad was transferred from the Rolls-Royce to the main vault with due ceremony. Its safe keeping, Saltzmann insisted, being the least the bank could do for the countess.
As they were about to leave the white marble vault that was empty except for her trunk of a metre in height and a little over a metre in length, like a sarcophagus flanked by orderly rows of chromium steel boxes, Saltzmann dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief the size of a dish cloth. The sickly smile reappeared and Anna knew he was unable to contain his vulgar curiosity. She could see him recounting her story of the bad weather, of missing the flight to New York and having to re-book the trunk for the following day.
“Please forgive my enquiring into your affairs contessa but are these not the items of pottery from your Chinese collection due in next month’s sale?”
Anna smiled tightly.
“Not pottery, Herr Saltzmann, porcelain, Ming porcelain. A pair of Ch’eng Hua vases that were a gift to my family from the Empress Dowager herself.”
Saltzmann watched her unfasten the top three clasps of her mink, pull a key on a gold chain slowly from her cleavage and muttered weakly,
“They must be very beautiful ...”
It was a full hour before Anna was able to relax in a comfortable chair by a wood-burning stove in the nearby Widder Hotel. A coffee and pastry was placed before her. She had no intention of eating the pastry and the coffee was not good for her composure but she was comfortable with these trappings and elegant surroundings.
The trunk containing the Ming vases, actually one Ming vase, was now lodged in the bank’s main vault. Her visit to the premises a month earlier was when the robbery had actually commenced. Her task on that occasion had been to access her box and secure an impression of the bank’s master key.
A senior clerk had the responsibility of placing this key in the door alongside the client’s key. He would then wait discretely at the vault’s circular entrance. It was almost miraculous the countess, with the tiniest piece of dentist’s moulding wax around the back of one of her rings, got a part-impression of the master key while the clerk was still holding it.
It had not been enough for her cousin Ferdinand to secure a copy. It was, however, good enough for the Penny Lane people to complete the job, along with providing six new client keys, each slightly different. This was the stage they had reached that afternoon.
The reason for needing new keys was because her cousin had been unable to access his private box at the bank for months. One day in November, his key suddenly, ridiculously, did not fit. The lock had been tampered with. Disagreement with the bank over the cause of this had reached the stage of legal proceedings.
There was some urgency in Ferdinand’s need to access his papers. Among them was a promissory note showing the bank owed his side of the Vespucci family, he and his brother Evasio, a substantial amount of money. That request matured in August, after which another year would have to pass before any withdrawal of funds and accrued interest could be made. This was if the bank was amenable and if the senior Vespucci business survived.
The original investment in Saltzmann’s bank in 1942 by Ferdinand and Evasio’s father, Anna’s uncle, had grown over 60 years to 800 million Swiss Francs. It was a sum not to be sneezed at. There was now a touch of desperation within the family on the need for its return.
Ferdinand had been absolutely correct in insisting she did not deviate from the story, Anna recalled. The vulgar little banker knew immediately it was those wretched vases on their way for auction. Ferdinand had also guessed that Saltzmann, who had a collection of chinoiserie of his own, would be unable to resist asking if he could see them and that it would be perfect if he did. Looking in to the upper part of the trunk, that is.
Dear Ferdinand. There was no doubt there were things one needed a man like him for.
She was about to ask the Hotelrezeptionistin to bring her a telephone when she remembered the call to Bergamo on the outcome that afternoon should be made from a public box. She picked up the receiver in a booth in the foyer but could not be bothered with the instructions on making international calls. When she realised it also needed money, a card, she lost interest completely. Emil would have to do it.
Count Ferdinand Vespucci had been pacing around the library of his villa in the mountains north of Bergamo since lunchtime that day. Everything had gone like clockwork from his end but he had not had to spin a cock-and-bull story to the manager of a Swiss bank for some time. He did however feel that sympathetic support over this ‘robbery’ was as vital as any other.
When the message came from Zürich that everything had gone smoothly he rang down to the kitchen for his tomato juice aperitif. Lucciano, a fixture in the Vespucci household before Ferdinand was born, appeared with a silver tray. Before giving the aperitif its final dash of something from a little green bottle, he waited for the count to straighten his bow-tie and brush a fine moustache with the miniature Mason-Pearson he had bought in Harrods many years before.
Vespucci was a handsome, distinguished aristocrat with greying temples and archetypal Italian good looks. He was a keen sportsman and climber, like his two sons and therefore different from most middle-aged Italians in being superbly fit. He was well-liked for his generosity, his geniality and dry wit. An ailing family fortune and imminent midnight assault on a Swiss bank by his eldest born had rendered him uncharacteristically quiet.
When Lucciano returned to his duties Vespucci looked across his estate, savouring the aperitif. He had never asked about the addition that gave the drink its kick, knowing he wouldn’t be told anything other than it was an “old Neapolitan pick-me-up.” The sun was weaker across the terrace and snow-covered vineyards with the mountains almost in silhouette. How fortunate they were to have an estate in a regional park, the Parco delle Orobie Bergamasche.
It did not ameliorate his anxiety that afternoon. A mixture of admiration and guilt over what he was putting his eldest son through for family honour remained uppermost in his mind. He telephoned the kitchen once more with instructions on the wine he wanted served at dinner, something a little more special he said. The least he and his second born, Ignatio, could do was drink to Clementino’s success that night. The lad could not have been remotely comfortable in the trunk.
Late that evening deep underground in the very heart of Zürich, Clementino looked cross-eyed at the watch he had bought for the occasion, one with an LED display he could read easily in total darkness. It showed 22:34. He had been on his back for more than ten hours unable to turn more than a few centimetres. He was not supposed to leave the trunk until after midnight but he could bear it no longer. He undid the latches securing the lower side panel and hinged it open.
Breathing a sigh of relief even though the vault was surprisingly stuffy, he listened carefully before beginning a much-practised shuffle to get himself out of the trunk. Sitting on the floor eventually in the darkness with a bright red 22:34 still showing wherever he looked he started on his massage routine. He was so stiff he could hardly move and didn’t know what he would do if someone chose then to enter the vault.
When he was feeling more comfortable he reached into his bag for the torch. There were other essentials in it, a comb, bread, prosciutto and a drink Cook had packed but he left these untouched. He didn’t want to unwrap his lunch in case people wondered why Ming vases should smell of ham.
When he switched on the torch he almost wished he hadn’t. The light glinted on the handles and escutcheons on the rows of boxes of chrome and polished steel. The vault was bigger than he had imagined and though this was Switzerland and the inside of it clean like an operating theatre, it was disconcertingly like a morgue. Creeping up on him was the memory of his brother locking him in the cellars at the villa with the rats. It was one of the best worst-twenty-minutes-of-their-life scenarios they both strove to improve on. That one hadn’t bothered Clementino of course, though he did call his brother “Ratfink” for some time afterwards, a word he had gleaned from their collection of British Victorian Penny Dreadfuls.
He checked his watch again. It was approaching eleven and the changeover of security shifts and he had to stick to the plan. There was no camera in the vault and it was time-locked until eight in the morning but they knew Saltzmann worked long hours, even over the weekend, occasionally until his witching hour of midnight. Clementino could not start fiddling with new keys until after midnight. Reluctantly he wriggled back into the trunk.
Eleven passed. There was no sound. Twenty more minutes went by and it occurred to him that if the walls of the vault were a couple of metres thick then of course he would hear nothing. A rat scratching, maybe. He played with the idea of the noise numbers of rats might make and peering at his watch again was relieved to see it was past midnight. He eased himself once more out of the lower compartment and began preparations for the task of the night. A job he noted with satisfaction that could only be done by someone of diminutive proportions.
Above Clementino there were things happening that none of them involved in this escapade could even have dreamed of. At eleven, a light glowed on the console in the security office. The afternoon man whose shift was just ending asked for identification from the uniformed officer whose face was distorted by the street camera’s wide-angle lens. It was Herman, of course and he would normally have exchanged some banter with his mate before going down to let him in. After an evening meeting, the Old Man said he would be in until late. He was standing beside him in the security office, his usual sober self.
It certainly would not suit Herman who enjoyed the simple pleasure of the night shift of sitting almost literally on one of the biggest wads in town. A bit of a lad, a ziemlicher kerl, he knew how girls could be charmed by talk of high finance, bank notes stacked to the ceiling and ‘more gold than in Fort Knox,’ even if he could only pull a few francs from his pocket. It worked for him and the occasional bright-eyed lass was let in for a little tour and reciprocal peek at her goodies.
It was approaching midnight when Saltzmann on the floor above Security cleared the last of his work concerned with the city’s Institute of Bankers. One task remained, necessitating a trip down to the vault. Smoothing his hair, he shifted the antique gas fire a fraction with his foot and moved a small lever inside the fireplace. A panel in the wall adjacent to the chimney breast clicked open and he squeezed his rotund figure into the cavity behind it. Before him was an iron rung ladder.
It was an old building and the hiding space was constructed in the late Sixteenth Century after decades of warring between Protestant Zürich and neighbouring Catholic Cantons. Under Saltzmann family ownership the hiding place was extended at the beginning of Switzerland’s Civil War in 1847 to a now long-gone ground floor fireplace. It was extended again in the 1930s to the city’s sewer system. Now it was sealed just above this at the bank’s main vault on the lower ground floor.
Saltzmann grunted as he began the four-floor descent to attend to a matter that had come to the end of the initial stalling process. The Vespucci solicitors had used the word grottesco about the family key ‘suddenly’ not fitting the door to the family’s vault box and had applied for a court order for its opening. Since it concerned the repayment of a vast sum of money from Stalhelm funds the order for the second stage, the removal of the promissory note from the box, had been given. The coded instruction had come that evening directly from Würzburg.
Clementino, meanwhile was humming a little tune. Reluctant to bring out the big flashlight in case it had to be stuffed back into the trunk he decided he could manage by the light of his key ring torch. He was having trouble. The master key delivered to Papa one morning by an Englishman in an almost laughably inappropriate hunter’s hat with large piuma, turned easily in the vault box. Of the other six keys the one that showed promise was still very stiff. Each had been cut differently after the canny family solicitor had ascertained with a smear of hair cream on the family’s original key one tooth had been altered.
Clementino didn’t want to force it. On the other hand he really wanted to open the box. Sweat trickled down his brow but with perseverance he got it to turn the two revolutions. He pulled open the door in a moment of triumph, then shut it again. Something inside had moved.
He went stone cold as a faint noise turned into a vigorous scraping before there was silence once again. It was yet another worst-twenty-minutes, on par with having slipped in a steep gulley with a bush saving his life but having to drop his gear bit by bit as the bush eased out of the crevice.
At first he reasoned the box had been booby-trapped. It might have been a rat smelling his packed lunch. Marginally worse was a bank devil up to its tricks. Most likely some swine had just rifled their safety deposit box from the other side. Could it now be the filching of the promissory note? If he had not been in a Swiss bank vault with a set of keys in the dead of night he would have thought the accessing of deposit boxes from their rear just too far-fetched for words.
He edged open the door and peered from the blackness into an even blacker hole. Cool air bathed his clammy face and yet another realization of how amateurish they were occurred to him, the probability the vault had no ventilation and he might have suffocated. Masking his torch with his fingers he pointed it into the box. The back was open slightly and the black tin deed box had indeed been withdrawn. He lifted out what remained, documents, bonds, jewellery and placed it in neat piles on the floor. He needed to investigate further.
The compartment looked big enough to accommodate him but proved a very tight fit. Standing on the trunk which he had dragged across the floor, he let out his breath and pulled himself in. The rear flap was heavy but using his new wriggling technique, testing all the while he could reverse himself, he got his head through the back end.
His light showed a wall of rough brickwork and a narrow passage the length of the vault. On the back of the vault wall were large rusty levers that coincided no doubt with the deposit boxes. How absolutely frightful and how ingenious he thought. Most interesting was the bottom of an iron ladder at the end of the corridor. Further, he decided, he would not venture.
His withdrawal in fits and starts almost proved his undoing. He lost a shoe. The front of his sweat-shirt rode up and almost strangled him but at last inside the vault he replaced the papers and things in exactly the same order, locked the box door, slid the trunk back to the pencil marks he had made on the floor and waited.
It was two o’clock and he was wondering if he had missed the noises from within the box when they started up, accompanied once more by shafts of light escaping through the keyholes that made him duck. When he opened the compartment this time, there was the deed box with the Vespucci family crest of boar, cherries and bejewelled coronet with nine pearls, emblazoned in silver, red and gold. His heart was thumping. Were his worst fears about the note about to be realised?
He was certainly not asleep when his wristwatch alarm shattered the silence at 07:30. He was sitting astride the trunk in the darkness rocking back and forth gritting his teeth. The alarm was a good bit of planning, as people would also have wondered why Ming vases should be snoring. More appropriate would have been the including of a wee bag in his kit and not a little one. With at least an hour before he could escape into the boot of the car he was in desperate need of a toilet.
He had been confined for twenty hours and although he had only sipped a little mineral water he was on the point of bursting. He had been crossing his legs and jumping up and down for a couple of hours. He alternated hot and cold. He was in fact, in a terrible state and now with less than half an hour before the vault door opened he knew he had no choice. He opened the upper part of the trunk with his spare key, dragged out several handfuls of the polystyrene granules packing the vase and in a moment he could only describe as ecstatic, relieved himself.
He was just too embarrassed to look at what he was doing to a rare piece of porcelain of a delicate under-glaze blue with jewel-like touches of red, green and yellow about the designs.
‘... they must be very beautiful ...’ he recalled Saltzmann saying. ‘Not beautiful, Herr Saltzmann. They are exquisite,’ Anna replied, ‘a truly perfect statement of fine porcelain ...’
With only six minutes to opening time Clementino suffered a more ordinary heart-stopping moment. He could not shut the trunk lid. He stuffed polystyrene granules down his tracksuit bottom. Still the lid would not close. A loud buzzer startled him. He had one more go, knowing he would have only seconds to try and break the vase with the big torch. The latches clicked shut. He had just about squeezed into the lower section when dazzling neon lights showed beads on the floor. He reached out as the huge circular vault door edged open, grabbed them and sealed himself in. All he could hear after this was his heart pounding. Mercifully, nothing else happened.
He didn’t think he would be quite so glad to hear Anna half an hour later. There was a shuffling of feet and he felt himself levitated. It would be a few minutes more before he could escape into the boot of the Rolls-Royce, unless there was a hitch and he really did not want to travel cargo to New York.