The Night of Ten – La Noche del 10 -2

"Two killers," Alexandra stunned me with her conclusion, "two ruthless merciless killers who would surely kill again, at the drop of a hat, as the needs of the moment demanded."

"You may be right, of course, Alexandra," I forced myself to speak calmly, matter-of-factly. "It was blind of me, I should have known. But remember that there might have been a bigger gang involved if it was a sabotage or had been ambushed ."

She looked in astonishment. She must have thought me either mad or just awaking from a fit of intoxication - only she flatter me I did not look as if the latter were the case.

I remembered how the bullets had passed clear through the policemen.

"I did know , but I could not add one and one. They were killed by different guns--- the one by a heavy carrying weapon, like an old Colt or a Luger, the other by a less powerful, a lighter weapon, like something a woman might have used. "

I broke off abruptly. A woman's gun! Why not? It could have been a woman that had followed me out earlier in the evening.

As Alexandra turned to me , I saw tears brimming over in her eyes. She took my hands and pleaded, "Don't leave me alone." She sobbed, "Don't leave me alone."

And the answer seemed simplicity itself. Why did a strange thrill of misgiving go through me? Was it something in the look that had passed between us? Perhaps so. In any case, strange to say, the inconsistency between our having received no papers and yet looking for my arrival at the hour accompanying the documents, and accosting me by name, did not strike me till some hours later.

She threw off what I believed to be my ridiculous mistrust, and it was not difficult to do so in my extreme annoyance.

For the first time in those few hours I acted sensibly---- I closed my mouth tightly and kept it that way. I just sat there silently watching her staring straight ahead , her fists clenched and tears rolling down her cheeks, and when she crumpled and buried her face in my hands and I embraced her, she made no resistance , just looked up at me , crushed her face into my caribou fur and cried as if her heart was breaking : and I suppose it was.

The emotions are no respecters of the niceties, the proprieties and decencies of this life, and , just then, I was clearly aware that her was stirred as they had not been since that dreadful day, two years ago, when her long-time fiancé, a groom-in-waiting, had been killed at point-blank range by his ex-girlfriend and this poor Alexandra had given up her studies , began to distrust the people of her own sex, returned to her first great love, traveling, and taken to wandering wherever work, new surroundings and an opportunity to forget the past had presented themselves. Women are generally of weaker sex and Alexandra did not like the idea of a sight of a woman with a gun in her hand. I suppose, too, that the moment a man hears that a girl had not been able to forget that her fiancé had died in the hands of another girl is the last moment that man should begin to fall in love with her. Why, when I gazed down at that small dark head pressed so deeply into the fur of my coat, I should have felt my heart turn over I did not know. For all her wonderful bluish eyes she had no pretensions to beauty and I knew nothing whatsoever about her. Perhaps it was pity for her past loss, for having so exposed her to danger of my deadly amateurish profession . I was not married but mature enough to know that the heart has its own reasons which even the acutest mind could not begin to suspect.

I told her, “In taking on the elements , we have conquered our mind and in the conquest, found ourselves . That is what drives the guy who climbs the Mt. Everest or swims across the English Channel . I have enough courage and intelligence to go into the bottom of this case.“

By and by the sobbing subsided and she straightened. She was trembling violently, so I put my arms round her and held her tightly until she calmed down, took her to bed and made her to go to sleep, gently caressing her dark hairs with my fingers.

My eyes were cold and hard, and I knew I had not only one enemy but lots of enemy groups on the prowl . That did not worry him, but he found the very triviality of the whole thing irritating beyond measure when there were so many other and vastly equally important things to ponder about.

I was just handling the young lady a cup of coffee when she screamed. It was not really loud, but in that confined space it had a peculiarly piercing and startling quality. Her arm jerked violently and the scalding contents of the coffee-cup were emptied over my bare hands.

I hardly noticed the pain. The lady, who had screamed, was now kneeling down. I pushed her to one side and sank on to his own knees.

When I rose to my feet I did so like an old man, a defeated old man, and I felt very cold, almost.

She was staring at me, the eyes of hers reflecting the superstitious horror which the presence of sudden and unexpected and unlucky things and happenings brings to those who are un-accustomed to it.

Food was being readied. Even in the steadily rising warmth, the melancholy gloom was an almost palpable blanket. I ate nothing. Both of us looked unwell because the first grayness of the morning twilight was stealing through our mind skylights and it did because I had just explained to her in detail exactly what the situation was, and she did not like it one little bit.

Neither did I.

The lunch was as silent as it was miserable, conversation being limited to what was necessary . Time and again I would see Alexandra turn to me and make to say something, then his or her lips would clamp tightly shut, the expression drain out of the face as one turned away without a word : with almost everyone thinking that a murderer was waiting to pounce upon us, the lunch was by all odds the most awkward and uncomfortable that I ever had. Or, that is, the first part of it was : but by and by I came to the conclusion that he had a great deal more to worry about than the niceties of social intercourse.

She was trying to watch me at one and the same time, while doing her level best to give the appearance of not watching.

But I knew that in her innermost soul, Alexandra had been constantly on the lookout for her dearest fiancé's killer---that woman who ruined her dream in the early of her life and who was now a fugitive in the eyes of the law . The moment she scented the idea of a woman killer , Alexandra became aware of her job at an instant, even though it was just an instinct, not any clear solution.

"I do not doubt your zeal and discretion, my good Alexandra," I said, "but in this case we must take even extra precautions. I had not meant to tell you, fearing to add to the certain amount of nervousness and strain unavoidable in such a case, but still, perhaps it is the best that you should know that we have reason for some special anxiety. It has been hinted to us that some breath of this" - and I tapped the papers - "has reached those who are always on the watch for such things. We cannot be too careful."

”Aren’t you afraid of any incoming danger to your life?”

“My angel is my old girlfriend Oindrila who was an Indian and whose picture I keep always with me wherever I go and throughout my journey, ” I said.

Daredevils always need their “guardian angels” for a happy ending.

She awoke at last, and that with a start, almost a jerk. Something had awakened her -- a sound -- and as it was repeated to my now aroused ears he new that she had heard it before, off and on, during my sleep. It was extraordinary.

I thought, “The man who had so recently knocked me out had been desperate all right. I was dealing blindfolded against the culprit --- or culprits ----- far dangerous and cleverer than myself.”

I must find out the reason for the attack . But what was not inevitable, what pointed most clearly of all to the shrewdness of the killers, was their guess that whoever responsible would be most reluctant to go into specific detail : and they had robbed me of some clues that might have helped me discover what that detail was and also, the identity of the killers . But the time was far past now for crying over spilt milk.

My thoughts were black and bitter as the deepening darkness of a sky that was slowly beginning to fill with cloud. A dark depression filled him, and a cold rage, and there was room in his mind for both. I had a strange fey sense of impending disaster and it was almost certainly a psychologically induced reaction to the cold, exhaustion and sleeplessness ------ nevertheless I could not shake it off : and I was angry because I was helpless.

I was helpless to do anything to protect the innocent Alexandra, who had entrusted herself to my care. I was helpless because I knew the murderers might strike at any time.

For the hundredth time I went over everything I could remember, everything that had happened, everything that had been said, trying to dredge up from the depths of memory one single fact, one isolated word that would point the fingers in those unmistakable directions. But I found nothing.

One will scarcely credit that I actually and for the third time fell asleep. Some occult influence was at work upon me throughout those dark hours, I am positively certain. And with the daylight it was dispelled. For when I again awoke I felt for the first time since leaving home completely and normally myself, fresh and vigorous, all my faculties at their best.

It was broad and bright daylight. How long had I slept?
The next day as I was walking down the road, going towards that wreckage site, I saw the usual crowd of pushy working girls of Hispanic origin already hanging just outside the cafe in the blazing afternoon sun, trying to woo the tourists.

I downed the rest of the mojito and the ice water in a beat and briskly walked out, turning the corner to avoid any encounters. Soon the mojito and the sun hit me and I began having random thoughts while wandering the already familiar streets and alleys of the Old City area . I blamed the absence of machismo in my upbringing for my reluctance to indulge in the oldest profession. On a more mindless note, I wondered if one could actually fry eggs, sunny side up, on the sidewalk.

In the midst of my lightheaded rambling I caught sight of a stunningly beautiful young girl. It seemed as if she was following me. She wore a loose floral mini dress with shoulder straps and flip-flops. She had a delicate, slim figure with beautiful curves and smooth dusky skin. She looked graceful, not at all like a working girl.

Casually adjusting my pace, I began to keep her in sight. She turned a couple of corners and paused by a storefront where she sensed my gaze from a distance. Her eyes avoided me and for a moment she frowned in pride.

Later she walked into a medical shop and I sat a distance away on the shady side of the street and lit a cigarillo, concentrating on not inhaling. As I blew the second puff of smoke, Brian showed up, riding on his bike .

That day, as usual, he was offering me a deal, $100 for a box of cigars .

" Right now I want to meet that morena." I said, pointing out the exotic young girl just as she left the shop and began walking away. He shadowed his eyes with his palm and said:

"I know her."

"No shit. She was probably following me ."

"What the hell are you talking about ? Her name is Jennifer. She's from my neighborhood. Wait here I'll go get her for you."

He was about to jump on his bike but I held him back.

"Oh no. Not like this. I don't think she would like to meet me right now. Do you really know her?"

"Yes. I know where she lives. She lives with her mother."

"What's she like? Does she go out?"

"How old is she?"

"Twenty-one or so. Old enough."

"Do you think she would like to meet me?"

"Sure. If you want I'll invite her to have dinner
with us."

"Be my guest. You're a real wonderman."

Brian had taken me to Casa de Blanca, a nice guesthouse .

The wonderman had also introduced me to Butragueno's restaurant where I would dine and hang out almost every night. The cozy restaurant was inside a fourth floor apartment . I used to sit on its small balcony overlooking the street and read my book over beer. The old proprietor, a retired person, would often keep me company recounting his memoirs.

That night Brian delivered the box of cigars to my room and walked me to Butragueno's where, to my pleasant surprise, the enchanting Jennifer joined.

She was wearing the same dress she wore that day. Up close she was even more radiant and captivating than when I had seen her from a distance. Her ample, cascading black hair flowed onto her shiny bare shoulders.

The greatest Florence Nightingale truly said :"Beautiful objects and brilliancy of color are actual means of recovery."

She was shy, pensive and reserved and barely said a word all night but she seemed to know that she was the special person on a special occasion.

That night after Mr. Butragueno closed the restaurant, we all walked by the breezy and moonlit drive and I got to have a few words with her.

"Would you like to see me tomorrow?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said shyly with her eyes downcast.

When they were a dozen or so steps away, Brian made a wide turn on his bike towards me.

"I think she likes you." He said.

Over the next few nights I held court at Butragueno's where they all came to dinner and I got to see more of Jennifer . She was a woman of many blushes and very few words. I could never guess what she was thinking. She would not eat much and would quietly ask for her dish to be bagged to go.

Little by little however, she seemed to get comfortable with the fact that I wanted to be close and intimate with her. The second night she sat next to me. She was wearing a hint of red lipstick.

I appreciated her , saying, "Your fragile beauty and submissiveness fits the role well --- like a SUNDECK with BARBECUE pits."

The following day, I took Jennifer to a Mexican restaurant. She loved her fortune cookie but kept her fortune without showing it to anyone. She put her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes. I felt preciously touched and kept still. That night we took a slow walk on the drive and when we passed a dark stretch she suddenly stopped, held my hand and whispered into my ear that she could go with me to a guesthouse she had prior contact.

At the guesthouse, we tiptoed to the room so as not to disturb anybody .

"Have you heard about the Newark Bay railway disaster ?" I asked her .

"Ya, I've. But It's beyond my daily life's interest and jurisdiction to inquire about its cause and go into its depth."

I did also tell her and fully explain everything about the danger I faced while investigating the Newark Bay railway disaster .

"I don't doubt your readiness to fight . But it would be by no such honestly brutal means as open robbery that you should be outwitted." She continued," Make friends readily with no one while in this land, sweetheart , yet avoid the appearance of keeping yourself aloof. You understand?"

I whispered into her ears ,"On your first night undressing should be the last thing on your mind."

She swiftly turned off the other light and came to bed. I looked at her silhouette . Silently she cuddled up next to me and rested her head on my chest for a while. I felt her warm silky touch for the first time. I held her for a bit and slowly began kissing her forehead, shoulder and lips. I touched her back and thighs .

"Enjoy, baby," I said gruffly as I kneeled on the floor . My hands were on her haunches , pulling her hips against that of mine , to let her know how much I wanted her . We made love. She was quiet and tender at first but suddenly she became passionate.

Jennifer was full of surprises. After our intense lovemaking she quickly put her dresses back on, turned on the light and spent some time quietly examining me with the curiosity of a little girl who had just undressed her doll for the first time. When I left the bathroom, she had opened a can of beer from the mini refrigerator, lit one of my cigars and, as if I was not there, begun going through my things that were strewn around the room. She found my open backpack in the closet and carefully went through all its pockets and compartments. I did not have much to hide. As I lay in bed watching her she found my passport and stared at my picture and my name for some time. Then she found my wallet and carefully examined my bit of cash, travelers' cheques .

"No pictures?" She asked.

"Sorry, I did not bring any."

Then she turned the light off, snuggled next to me in bed .

When I woke up by the tringing of my cell Jennifer had vanished by then, to my utter surprise . Through the small window high above my bed another cold and dark day in New Jersey poured in.

I clearly heard Alexandra’s voice on the cell: “The Admiralty or the Government or whoever it is have loosened up at last !”

With a short pause, she said again : “You’re sitting on dynamite and you don’t know it. You’ve got it right there with you and you could exchange it tomorrow for a million dollars in the right place. No wonder the government were so cagy, no wonder they knew something fishy was going on and mounted the biggest investigation ever.”

There was a pause again, then she went on, slowly, impressively. ”I understand the governments concerned are prepared to go any lengths ----- any lengths --- to secure the recovery of this valuable piece and prevent its falling into wrong hands.”

The magnitude of the entire thing took my breath away, temporarily inhabited all thought and speech.

That day I took a cab to the beach and stared at the blue sky and the low clouds on the horizon. At night I stayed in and read. When I went to bed the unchanged sheets had her scent. I left the house in despair of losing her without any reason . I started towards my own cottage.

Was it all a dream, or a prophetic vision of warning? Or was it in any sense true? Had I, in some inexplicable way, left own town earlier than being intended, and really traveled in a slow train?

Or had the girl with a beauty, for her own nefarious purposes, mesmerized or hypnotized me, and to some extent succeeded? After all, in such cases, nobody is above doubt.

The experience I had gone through left me a wiser man. Now a flash of lurid light seemed to have transformed everything.

Breakfast was waiting and ready to be eaten, but I had little appetite for it : it seemed to me I had forgotten what sleep was like, I had had none for almost two days, I was living now in a permanent state of physical and mental exhaustion and it was becoming almost impossible to concentrate, to think of the hundred and one things that had to be thought of all the time. More than once I caught myself nodding and dozing off over my cup of coffee, and it was only with a conscious effort of will that I forced myself to my feet.

That afternoon, on Alexandra's insistence, I took her to the spot of the disaster and entered into the wreckage. We checked all the details .

As we were preparing to leave that place, a car was speeding down towards us and I fell.

I immediately tried to leap to my feet to get a bearing on the vehicle, but I did not succeed.

Even with the realization a jarring vibration, of a power and intensity far beyond anything I had expected, reached my feet through the ground. I heard clearly the sudden sharp sound like a crash or violent accident, the grinding tearing scream of metal being twisted and seemed tortured out of shape. And then, abruptly, silence ------- a silence deep and still and ominous, and the sound of the wind in the darkness was no sound at all.

Shakily, I rose to my feet . The blinding suffocating weather was a nightmare, a cruel refinement of contrasting torture where the burning in my throat contrasted with the pain of his freezing face for dominance in his mind. I was coughing constantly in the chilled air, no matter how I tried to cover mouth and nose with one hand, no matter how shallowly I breathed to avoid chilling my lungs.

The devil of it was, shallow breathing was impossible. I was running now, running as fast as away from murderous gale wind, life or death was simply a factor of speed.

As Alexandra pointed to my face, I kneaded my face vigorously with my chilled hands until I felt the blood pounding painfully back.

My greatest fear had already proved groundless --- there was no sign of fire, no flickering red to see, no hidden crackling to hear. It was still possible that some small tongue of flame was creeping along inside the fuselage of the car looking for the petrol or oil that would help it blaze into destructive life ------ and with that wind to fan the flames, destruction would have been complete ----- but it was unlikely that any skilled driver cool-headed enough to turn off the ignition would have forgotten to shut down the petrol lines.

The car screeched to halt in the distance and as I looked, I could not find clearly what was going to happen as it was already evening . A tall person came down from the car’s driver's seat and walked round to the mangled cabin , pushing his searchlight slightly to one side. I could not see if there was any other person sitting in the car.

It was already darkness. We could not see his face clearly , but the tip of his gun barrel could be seen , protruding menacingly into the searchlight’s beam.

“The end of the line, Mr. Dibyendu. You and your little friend will please come out and drop your weapon.”

I was surprised to hear the unknown person calling me by my name. There was nothing else for it. Stiffly , numbly, I came out , took a couple of very slow steps towards him, stopped as his pistol steadied unwaveringly on my chest and dropped my rifle on the ground.

“You’re wasting your time. Both of you off.”

“It’s my legs. I think they are sleeping or frozen in the bitter cold.”

“Come out!” he repeated sharply, “May be a bullet or two in one of your legs will help,” he said unemotionally, ”to get the feeling back.”

I did not know whether he meant it or not. I did not think so --- gratuitous violence might not be in the character for this man, who was supposed to be a professional killer.

“I’d snuff you and your accomplice like a candle.”

“No!” I said, savagely, the words carrying clearly in a sudden lull in the wind.

“Lay a finger on my woman, and I’ll get you and break your neck like a rotten carrot even if you empty the entire magazine into me.”

I looked at him as he crunched there like a great cat, boots digging into the cold ground, fists clenched, ready for the challenge with an explosive leap that would take him across that tiny space in a split second of time. It was then that it happened, with the stunning speed and inevitability that violent tragedy, viewed in retrospect, always seems to possess. I thought perhaps that it was some calculated plan, a last-minute desperate effort to save me that made Alexandra act as she did .

As she passed by the man she tumbled, he put up an arm , not to help her but to ward her off, and before he realized what was happening --- it must have been the last quarter from which he expected any show of violence or resistance--- she kicked out blindly and knocked the gun out of his hand to land on the ground beneath. He sprang after it like a cat-- the speed was unnecessary, the low growl of warning from an armed accomplice of the man put paid to any ideas I might have had of taking advantage of the situation-picked up the gun and whirled round, the gun lining up on Alexandra, his eyes narrowed to slits against the light, his face twisted, the lips drawn far back over the teeth.

“Alexandra!” asked a female voice .

A woman ! lurking behind the car, was the nearest to her, and her voice high-pitched.

“Look out, you bloody young lady !”

That lady also plunged forward to catch the gun by pushing Alexandra to one side, but I do not think her boss even saw her coming out : he was mad with fury and nothing on earth was going to stop him pressing the trigger . The lady lunged at her, a six-inch butterfly knife held high above her head in a classic stabbing position, a crazed, blood thirsty grin with tiny droplets of spittle flying from it was on her contorted face. " DIE BITCH DI............" she screamed .

I tried to focus my eyes again and for a moment I caught a good sight of her from afar as she was illuminated by approaching searchlights.

It was Jennifer !

I was in total shock . Beautiful objects and brilliancy of color are actual means of recovery.......

"Well ... It's true you just arrived here ..." Jennifer yelled . glancing at me .

Suddenly, loud gunfire erupted from behind and I found Alexandra's face sprayed with blood and chunks of organs and bones caused by Jennifer's exploded abdomen . Alexandra continued to scream as I found her, wearing a belted coat--- was lying on the ground. She was stirring, and as I put my hands under her arms to help her up, she screamed in sudden pain. I changed my grip and lifted her gently.

“My shoulder.” Her voice was low and husky. “It’s very sore.”

Easing back the blouse at the neck and closing it again , I whispered, ”Your clavicle - the collar bone is gone. Just sit there and hold your left arm in your right hand……...yes, so. I’ll strap you up later. You won’t feel a thing, I promise you.”

"A woman, I told you, Sir."

She smiled at me, half-timidly, half-gratefully, and said nothing more. I stared at her, glanced down at the dead girl at my feet then gazed unseeingly after the rapidly receding headlights of the car, until it had faded and vanished into the cold darkness of the befalling night. Suddenly a rich baritone brought us back to the scene again as the man in black emerged from behind, a smoking berretta in one hand.

“That Jennifer was a fool.”

Ruing his fate of losing his right-hand 'Lady Terminator', he was now in a vengeful mood. He ordered us to kneel down on the ground .

A bell was ringing far back in my mind, not so loud as the first but even more desperately insistent, and all at once I had it and began to rise to my feet. “But there were three of them, three of them !” That was as far as I got when some metal object smashed across my wrist with brutal force, sending my automatic gun flying, and something small and hard ground viciously into the back of my neck.

“Don’t move, mr….Craxxi.” The voice, flat, controlled but alive with a vibrant power that I had never heard before, was almost unrecognizable. “Just one suspicious move and you get your head blown off.”

I stood stock-still. The man behind that voice meant every word he said. I did not need any convincing of that . The cold certainty in that voice only reinforced that. The sanctity of human life was a factor which can never enter into this man’s considerations.

“All right, Mr. Dino?” He was speaking again, his voice empty of all concern for and interest in his accomplice : his only anxiety, if one could by any stretch of imagination call it that, lay in his desire for his accomplice’s effectively continued co-operation.

“All right,” Mr. Dino said softly. He was standing now and that both mind and reactions were back to normal was evident from the dexterity with which he caught the gun his boss threw back to him.

I was choked off in a grunt of pain as his gun barrel caught me viciously across by the side of the head. I fell to my hands and knees and remained there for several seconds, head down and shaking it from side to side as I tried to overcome the dizziness and the pain.

As I gave a glance at the leader, the mouth was a thin hard line, the upper eyelids bar-straight and hooded above the unwinking eyes. Flat marbled eyes of a faded light-blue . A KILLER’s Eyes.

Both Alexandra and I had to oblige because his gun was pointing at us, while he was moving backward. Alexandra leaned across and tapped me on the shoulder with something held in her hand. I reached up and silently took it from her.

“The killer’s wallet,” she said softly. ”Fell from his pocket when I knocked him down. He didn’t see it go, but I did --- sat on top of it.”

The boss’ gun was still pointing at us , while he was now nearer to his car, but none of them was looking at us at that moment. I stripped off my gloves , opened the blue-colored wallet and tried to examine its contents in the dim light. The wallet provided us with that last proof of the thoroughness, the meticulous care with which the man had been carrying out his job : The ‘D.A.’ stamped on the hand-tooled morocco, the visiting cards with the inscribed ‘Demetrius Albertini’ above the name and address of the now blacklisted J.Paul Getty Museum, and the leather-backed fold of American Express cheques, each one already signed ‘D. Albertini’ in its top left-hand corner, would have carried complete conviction.

And , too late, the wallet also presented us, obliquely but beyond all doubt, with the reason for many things, especially the purpose of the crashing of the carriage to the explanation of why I had been attacked the last night : inside the bill-fold compartment was the newspaper cutting which I read very slowly, below the minimal decibel level, just in a whispering note , with infinite chagrin.

The account was brief, that it concerned the dreadful disaster in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where the small luxury commuters’ train had plunged through an opened span of the bridge into the waters of Newark Bay. I already knew from the quick glance I had at the cutting. But, as I had also gathered that the luxury train was carrying the prized ‘EUPHRONIOS KRATER’.

This was a follow-up to the original story that goes like this :

Acquisition of the Euphroniosa krater in 1972 sparked a media frenzy in both the US and Italy.

In their decade-long investigation of the illicit antiquities trade, Italian authorities have amassed the strongest evidence to date that the most prized ancient Greek vase in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was looted.

The Euphronios krater, described as one of the finest antiquities ever ,obtained by the Met, was being transported to another city for restoration works. Italian prosecutors believe they have the proof, according to previously undisclosed court records.

The records include excerpts from the handwritten memoir of Robert E.Hecht Jr., the American dealer who sold the krater, a terracotta bowl, to the Met in 1972.
In his memoir, seized during a raid of his Paris apartment in 2001,Hecht tells a very different story. Instead of buying the krater from a reputable dealer with a documented ownership history, he says he purchased it in 1971 from an Italian dealer, Giacomo Medici, who was convicted last year of trafficking in looted art. Medici turned up one morning at Hecht's apartment in Rome and showed him a Polaroid photograph of a krater signed by Euphronios, a master vase painter of ancient Greece, the memoir says. Within an hour, Hecht writes, the two men flew to Milan and caught a train north to Lugano, Switzerland, where Medici had the bowl in a safe-deposit box. Hecht says he offered Medici 1.5 million Swiss francs -- about $380,000 at the time - for the krater on the spot, making a cash down payment of about $40,000. He then headed straight to Zurich, Switzerland, he writes, where he left the krater with a restorer before heading back to Rome to go on a family ski trip. In this account, he makes no reference to documentation establishing that the object had been legally excavated and exported from Italy. The Italians' new evidence about the krater's origins emerged at a time of heightened controversy over the ethics of antiquities acquisitions, with Italy, Greece and other source countries pressing claims for the return of rare items they say were illegally removed.

Hecht and Marion True, the former antiquities curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in southern California, are now facing trial in Rome for allegedly trafficking in looted art. Medici was convicted last year in the same case and is appealing a 10-year prison sentence. Italy is also demanding the return of 42 objects from the Getty. This J. Paul Getty Museum is accused of dealing in stolen antiquities.

Among the other new evidence cited by the Italians is a sworn deposition by True before an Italian prosecutor. In the document, also obtained by The Times, she said Met antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer showed her an aerial photograph and pointed to the exact tomb in a heavily looted necropolis north of Rome where the krater had been excavated.

Italian officials said in Rome in interviews in 2005 that two men from Cerveteri, site of the ancient necropolis, have told them that they helped illegally remove the krater from a tomb in 1971.

Probably Mr. Albertini wanted to take illegal possession of the vase and it was still inside that mangled wreckage . It was still unclear whether Mr. Albertini was traveling by the same ill-fated luxury train that met with the disaster and now at a distance behind us or he intercepted it in the middle himself or with the help of his accomplices to cause the accident. If he was really in the train, how could he survived the disaster while all the others had died . If not, then he and his gang must have manipulated the tracks and the bridge so as to crash the train . But I was sure that the vase was still inside the wreckage of the train and has not been fallen in the hands of Albertini . The attack on me the night before the previous night was its proof .

Chilly -- , that it was -- very chilly; but as my faculties returned I remembered my precious bag, and forgot all else in a momentary terror that it had been taken from me. No; there it was my elbow had been pressed against it as he slept. But how was this? The time was not in motion. I glanced at my watch. Barely midnight! We were not due there till four o'clock in the morning or so.

And Yes. One thing I did not disclose to Alexandra . That I had shared bed with that 'Jennifer' . That night Jennifer checked my passport and other documents . Probably she was set after us to know the secret information about me and about what I was investigating in this particular case. I silently blamed myself for putting Alexandra into the hands of this dangerous Jennifer .

Time check 2200 .

The killer had, by that time, walked up to his car and opening its door, went inside. There came the sudden click, abnormally loud and I stretched my length on the ground, picked my rifle up in my hands and had the rifle raised to my shoulder. And then, suddenly, the car had come clearly into sight, speeding up , probably trying to mow down us. And just twenty yards ! I could never miss at this point-blank range, even with a moving target .

But I had gambled, and I had lost. The car was already on the far side, even at its nearest point of approach it would still be three hundred yards away which I could not guess in the darkness. Mr. Albertini must have been desperate, desperate to the point of madness, for no sane man would have taken the fearful risks of driving the car through sloping surfaces. Or could it be that he just did not know the suicidal dangers involved?

After a few seconds I was convinced he did not . I tried fleetingly, frantically, to get inside his cold and criminal mind, to try to understand his conception of us. Did he think that we thought, like him, that the krater was all important, that human life was cheap and readily expendable ? If he did, and guessing the quality of my marksmanship with a rifle, would he not be convinced that he would be shot down as soon as he had stepped out?

But the time for thought, had there ever been such a time, was past. I was on my way, plunging out into the open across the narrow thirty-yard stretch that led into the first of the fissures. The first shell came out of my gun and smashed through the hood of the old car and the second into the engine with all the metallic clamor. But still the vintage black beauty rolled on . I went on firing in a line, indiscriminately and aimlessly, but I missed the tyres. I was about half-way across when I heard the engine change gear. And then, when I was just less than a hundred yards away and after a lull in my firing --- the engine stopped as abruptly as if the ignition had been switched off. There was no mistaking the high-pitched screech of those worn brakes..

Then, abruptly, the door on the driver’s side burst open---Mr. Albertini came out into the open.

I catapulted myself off my seat, took one tremendous hop and hurled myself bodily towards the chief criminal, who, his face twisted in a vicious and unrecognizable mask, had pushed himself off the car with one hand and with the other was fumbling desperately to bring something out from under his coat. He saw he could not make it in time, threw himself to one side, but I was like a cat on his feet . There was an astonishing speed of his reflexes , that burning left arm of his carried with lethal conviction. And he was a very big man, six feet three at least two hundred pounds, but when that fist caught him with such frightening power just under the heart he staggered back and slid slowly to the ground, unseeing eyes turned up to the first driving flakes of the newly fallen snow.

I ran down towards him and flung myself completely on top of the killer and started butting him savagely in the face with the top of my already emptied-out rifle and Albertini, trapped in the narrow space, could find no room to make use of his much greater strength. I stared down at the outspread stillness of the man, his face empty of all expressions.

It might have been a flash of fear, of realization that he had come to the end of his road that I saw in Albertini's eyes, but I could never swear to it, the turn of his head, the sudden headlong dash for the shelter by the side, five yards away, were so swift that I could be certain of nothing . But swift as he was , I was even swifter: I caught Albertini before he had covered three yards and we both crashed together, clawing, punching and kicking in the grim desperate silence of men who know that the winner’s prize is his life.

He is evidently in the same hole as myself. What in Heaven's name are we waiting here for?

Neither of us had allowed each other to regain our feet since the struggle had begun, and still we rolled over and over first he on top , now me. My hands were clubbing and hammering the life out of Albertini . Then I remembered he was fully prepared to kill Alexandra with as little compunction as he would snuff out the life of a fly.

Suddenly, I was underneath , one arm crooked round Albertini’s neck while the other delivered a murderous serious of short-arm jabs, each one drawing a grunting gasp of agony from a white-faced Albertini : finally , goaded into supreme effort by panic and fear, he managed to break loose and hurled himself not towards the high ground where safety lay, but for the shelter of the steep rocks , where nobody would never know safety again . I, cat-like as ever, was only feet behind him, moving so fast.

But, his body skidded violently first to one side then the other, finally making a complete half-circle and sliding backward down the steep rock , following the slope . And then came a long quavering moan of agony, cut off as abruptly as it had begun. And suddenly there was only silence. But then, I shall never know how I survived all the crazy chances I took on my mad headlong run down that steep slope, unable to stop, pounding my sliding way alongside where the slip of either foot would have been my death. But Albertini slipped , felled and the next moment had disappeared from my sight. Already trying all I could to brake myself , I flung myself flat on the cold ground to stop myself, I caught a glimpse of Albertini and as I peered down through the two-foot wide gap between the rocks , I felt faint : the crevices narrowing as it went down to not much more than two feet, ended about 15 feet down in a solid shelf of rock, a ledge sculpted by years of weathering of the rocks .

Albertini was still on his feet, shaky. I could see, but seemingly unharmed --- it had been a short drop. Albertini , flattened lips drawn back over his teeth, was staring up at me.

“A rope, Mister !” he said softly. “Get me a rope. I beg you.”

“Very well,” I said calmly. My mind felt preternaturally clear. I knew his life hung on just a fraying thread.

Meanwhile, Alexandra had already brought a large and heavy rope from inside the wreckage . I un-wound the rope thrown by her.

“Here it comes.”

He reached up both hands to catch the falling rope. The heavy rope fell on him like a plummeting stone . With the tangle of the rope and the narrowness of the crevices he had no chance to get clear and he crashed further on to the ledge , now just holding a tip of the cliff with his hands.

“Throw me a rope.”

He could see death’s hand reaching out to touch him as it was inevitable that it was impossible to cling to a cliff for more than a few minutes . I thought of the trail of death Albertini had left behind him, of how close to the brink of death he had brought to the girl now trembling in the crook of my wounded arm. I stepped back without a word and walked slowly up to meet the officer-in-charge who had come in hurriedly , probably informed by Alexandra on the wireless sensing the impending danger ahead of us . Within a moment we heard a loud thunderous voice going down and splashing into the cold water of the Newark Bay below.

But the old man smiled condescendingly, though with a touch of superciliousness. It was very well done. He waved his hand.

The white hell of that night, the agony of the bitter dreadful hours that followed – and God only knows how many hours these were – is a memory that will never die.

The thoughts, the emotions of these hours I could never afterwards recall. Chagrin there was, the most bitter I have ever known, an overwhelming mortification and self-condemnation that I had all along been deceived with such childish ease, that I had been powerless to offer any hindrance to the endless resourcefulness of that brilliant criminal. With that thought anger would flood in to supplant the chagrin, a consuming hatred and a fury that flamed throughout my entire being, but even that anger was not all exclusive : it could not be, not so long as fear, a fear for the safety of Alexandra such as I had never before known, was the dominating factor in my mind. And it was.

"I should be glad to be free from the responsibility of the charge, but I dare not let these out of my own hands till the agreement is formally signed," I told the officer.    


More by :  Dibyendu Ghosal

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