- About this Book
- The author
- Title page
- Acknowledgements & Credits
About this Book
Yesterday John Fontanelli was just a pizza delivery guy in New York City. One day later he’s the richest man in the world. One trillion dollars — one million times one million — $1,000,000,000,000: more money than anyone could imagine. For generations the Vacchis, an old Italian family of lawyers and asset managers, had supervised the fortune as it grew over five hundred years, until one particular date that the benefactor had stipulated in his will. The youngest male descendant was fated to oversee the fortune for the good of humanity. John relishes his new life of luxury, rubbing elbows with royalty, buying up corporations, fielding a flood of beautiful women — until one day the phone rings, and a mysterious stranger tells the trillionaire that he knows what dirty secrets lie behind the fortune …
Andreas Eschbach was born in 1959 in Ulm. He studied aerospace technology and worked as a software developer. He wrote his first novel as a scholar in the Arno-Schmitt Foundation “for highly talented aspiring authors,” and it was published in 1995. He is known for the bestseller “Das Jesus Video.” Andreas Eschbach lives as a freelance author near Stuttgart.
A GRIPPING FINACIAL CONSPIRACY THRILLER
is the worst form of government
except all those other forms
that have been tried …
IN FRONT OF THEM the double-winged doors finally swung open, and they entered a room filled with an almost heavenly light. The middle of the chamber was dominated by a large oval table made of dark wood. Two men stood in front of it, looking expectantly at them as they entered.
“Mr. Fontanelli,” the young lawyer addressed John as he closed the door behind them. “Let me please introduce my partners to you.” He gestured to the pair in front of the table. “First, my father, Gregorio Vacchi.”
John reached out to shake hands with a stern looking man, whom he guessed to be in his mid-fifties. He wore a gray, single-breasted suit and a pair of thin-rimmed gold glasses. His attire and thinning hair made him resemble a typical bookkeeper. Indeed, it was very easy to imagine this man as a lawyer, perhaps specializing in tax laws, standing in a courtroom and dryly uttering paragraphs of law through his thin lips. His handshake felt cool, business-like, and he mumbled something like: “Pleased to meet you.” Even though, he didn’t look like the sort of man who knew the meaning of "pleased.”
The other man was older. His unruly curly hair and bushy eyebrows made his face look a bit grim, yet more dynamic than the former’s. He wore a dark blue double-breasted suit with a very conventional club tie and a neatly folded handkerchief in his left breast pocket. You could imagine him in a fancy bar, laughing as he celebrated a victory in a murder case, a glass of champagne in one hand and pinching waitresses’ asses with the other. His handshake was firm, and he looked so intensely into John’s eyes that it made him uncomfortable. His deep voice said, “Alberto Vacchi. I’m Eduardo’s uncle.”
Only now did John notice another person present in the room. Sitting in a wing-chair in front of a window was an old man. Though his eyes were closed it was clear he was not asleep; but rather as if he was too weary to have all his senses working at once. His wrinkled thin neck emerged from a soft shirt, covered by a gray sweater. He had a small silk pillow lying on his lap upon which his folded hands rested.
“The Padrone,” Eduardo Vacchi said in a low tone of voice when he noticed who John was looking at. “That’s my grandfather. As you see, we’re a family firm.”
John only nodded. He didn’t really know what to say. He was shown a chair to sit on, on its own on one of the long sides of the conference table. Across from him on the other side of the table were four chairs with their backrests pressed against the table in neat fashion. Lying on the table in front of each chair were thin folders, the covers made of black leather with crests emblazoned on them.
“Would you like something to drink?” he was asked. “Coffee, mineral water?”
“Yes, coffee, please,” he heard himself say. He had the same nervous feeling now as when he’d entered the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel only a short while ago.
Eduardo placed the coffee cups on the table, which had been sitting neatly and orderly on a small trolley. Next, he put the creamer and sugar dispensers on the table; all made of silver. He poured coffee for each of them and placed the pot next to John’s cup. The three Vacchis sat down. Eduardo was seated to the right from John’s point of view, Gregorio, his father, next to him, and to John’s left sat Alberto, the uncle. The fourth chair remained empty.
There was silence, broken only by cream and sugar being poured into the cups and the stirring of their spoons. John stared at the wonderful grain of the reddish mahogany tabletop. That had to be wood from the roots — burl wood.
As John stirred his coffee with a heavy silver spoon, he furtively looked around him. Out the window — behind the three lawyers — was a grand, far-reaching view of New York. Sunlight danced between the concrete ravines of the skyscrapers and the East River sparkled a deep blue. Fine-spun salmon-pink curtains hung down on each side of the windows, which contrasted very well with the immaculate dark-red carpet and the snow-white walls. Unbelievable, John thought as he sipped his coffee, which tasted strong and robust, like the espresso his mom usually made for him.
Eduardo Vacchi opened the file that lay before him on the table. The sound the leather cover made seemed a signal to the start for the proceedings. John set his cup on the saucer and took a deep breath; he was ready.
“Mr. Fontanelli,” the young lawyer said. He leaned forward slightly, elbows on the table and hands folded together. His voice didn’t sound so welcoming anymore, but rather official. “I asked you to bring along a form of identification for this meeting, maybe a driver’s license, a passport, or whatever. It’s only for the sake of formalities, of course.”
John nodded. “I’ve got my driver’s license … one moment please.” He hastily reached for his rear pocket and was startled to find nothing there. But then he remembered that he had stuck the license into the inside pocket of his jacket. With a hot, shaky hand he slid the card across the table. The lawyer took the license, glanced at it briefly, and then with a nod handed it to his father. Gregorio Vacchi, however, studied the driver’s license so intently that it almost seemed as if he thought it might be a fake.
Eduardo gave a thin smile, “We also have identification documents with us.” He pulled out two large very formal looking pieces of paper. “The members of the Vacchi family have been residents of Florence for several centuries, and for generations almost every male member has been a lawyer or trust manager. The first document substantiates this; the second one is an English translation of the first, authenticated by a notary public from the state of New York.” He handed both papers to John.
John looked at them, a bit lost. The first document, stuck inside a clear plastic cover, seemed to be quite old. It was written in Italian of which John could only read maybe one out of every ten words. It was written on ancient gray paper, decorated with crests and had a whole collection of stamps and signatures on the bottom. The English translation, a neat laser-printed piece of paper, had the usual official stamps and signatures, and the text sounded equally confusing, being written in typically convoluted legal language; but it basically said what the young Vacchi lawyer had told him; as far as he could comprehend. He put the papers down on the table and folded his arms. One of his nostrils was twitching; he hoped nobody noticed.
Eduardo folded his hands together once more. John’s driver’s license was now being scrutinized by Alberto. He nodded his head satisfied and then pushed it into the middle of the table.
“Mr. Fontanelli, you are the heir to a significant fortune,” Eduardo began again, once more in a formal tone of voice. “We are gathered here to announce to you the sum and the conditions for acceptance of the inheritance; in case you wish to accept it, we must explain what stipulations are necessary.”
John nodded impatiently. “Err, yes — could you tell me who it is that died?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to hold back the answer to that question for the time being. It is a lengthy story. At any rate, it is not a member of your immediate family.”
“And why am I inheriting something?”
“That cannot, as I said, be explained in one or two sentences. That is why I wish you to have just a little more patience. For the present moment the question is; you are supposed to inherit a large fortune. Do you want it?”
John laughed impulsively. “Okay, how much is it?”
“Over eighty thousand dollars.”
“Did you say eighty thousand?”
“Yes, eighty thousand.”
John leaned back and took a large gulp of air. Wow. Eighty … thousand … dollars! Man, oh man, no wonder there was all this fancy acting stuff! Eighty thousand dollars — that is a nice sum of money. All at once! He had to let that sink in first. That meant … that meant … he could go to college … easily, and without having to work a single hour for some stupid pizza delivery service, or some other poorly paid, stupid, mundane job. Eighty thousand … all at one time! Just like that! Unbelievable!
If he … okay, he’d have to watch out and not get carried away. He could stay at the same place, keep sharing an apartment with a few others. That was okay, nothing luxurious, but if he lived a thrifty life style … man, it was still enough to get a used car! Some nice clothes. This and that. Ha — no more worries!
“Not bad,” he finally said. “So, what is it you want from me? If I’ll take the money or not?”
“I’ve got a stupid question; is there a catch to this whole deal? Will I inherit something less nice along with it, or what?”
“No, you’re inheriting money. If you want it you can have it and do with it as you wish.”
John shook his head — he simply couldn’t believe it. “Could you ever imagine me saying no? Could you ever imagine anyone saying no?”
The young lawyer raised his hands. “It is simply a formality. We are obliged to ask.”
“All right, you asked — and I say yes.”
John shrugged his shoulders. “You know, I’ll only believe this when I have the bills in my hands anyhow.”
“That’s perfectly all right.”
But it was not true; he did believe it already, as absolutely crazy as it was. Four lawyers had come all the way from Italy to New York to give him, a poor, untalented pizza delivery driver, eighty thousand dollars. Just like that! From out of nowhere! But there was something about this room that made him believe; made him believe he was at the threshold of a turning point in his life. It seemed as if he had been waiting all his life for this. Crazy — he felt a nice warm, cozy feeling in his belly.
Eduardo Vacchi closed his file, and, as if he had been waiting for this moment, his father opened the one lying before him. What was his name again? Gregorio. John felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck, and an eye started to twitch. This looked way too rehearsed. Here comes the big surprise — here comes the rude awakening. Now he had to watch it!
“For reasons that are yet to be explained,” Eduardo’s father began, his words coming out dry as dust, “your case is unique in the history of our firm. Even though the Vacchis have managed fortunes for generations, we have never been involved in such a case, and may never be again. Considering the circumstances here and now, it seemed for us wise to be a bit too careful rather than too careless.” He took off his glasses and twirled them slowly in his fingers. “A colleague and friend of ours had an unfortunate thing happen to him some time ago. While reading a last will and testament to an heir, the client suffered a heart attack. It may very well have been the sum of money he heard that caused this misfortune. I must add that the sum in question was far larger than my son just mentioned, however, the heir was not that much older than you are. Neither he nor anyone else knew that he had an ailing heart.” He placed the glasses back on his nose, adjusted them in place, and looked John in the eyes again. “You do understand what it is that I’m trying to tell you?”
John, who had tried hard to follow his words, just nodded, and then he shook his head. “No. No, I don’t understand anything anymore. Will I, or will I not inherit eighty grand?”
“You will … don’t worry.” Gregorio looked down over his nose at the files before him. He shuffled the papers. “Everything that Eduardo told you is true,” He looked up to John again, “except for the sum.”
“Except for the sum?”
“You’re not inheriting eighty thousand, but over four million dollars.”
John just stared at him. To him, it seemed as if time had stopped. He simply stared, and the only part of his body that moved was his jaw, falling, bit by bit.
He finally managed to say something. “Wow!” He laughed and ran his fingers through his hair. The he laughed some more, like some nut. Four million dollars! He couldn’t restrain himself. He laughed and laughed until the lawyers began to think they might have to call an ambulance.
Four million! Four million!
Then he stopped and looked at the lawyer from Florence, Italy again. The spring sunlight coming through the windows made his thinning hair look like a halo. He could have kissed him. He could have kissed them all! They came here to place four million dollars right in his lap! He laughed again, and again, and then once more. “Wow!” he said again after he caught his breath. “Now I understand; you thought that I would keel over when I heard the amount of money all of a sudden, right?”
“That is one way to put it,” Gregorio Vacchi said nodding with a hint of a smile.
“And do you know what? You were right. I would’ve keeled over. Oh, man.” He put a hand before his mouth and didn’t know where to look. “Did you know that I had the worst night of my life the day before yesterday? And only because I didn’t have enough money for the subway … a lousy dollar and twenty five cents. Now you come here and tell me I’m to get four million dollars …”
Phew. The good Lord knows that was no lie with the heart attack; his heart was pounding hard in his chest. Just the thought of all this money made his circulatory system go wild, as if he were having sex.
Four million dollars! That was … that was more than just money. That was another life. With this amount of money he could do what he wanted. With this amount of money he didn’t have to work another day of his life. Whether he was a student or not — or the lousiest painter in the world — it simply didn’t matter anymore.
“And that’s really true?” he asked suddenly. “I mean, maybe someone will come out of that room over there and say, ‘smile, you’re on Candid Camera!’ or something like that? We’re talking real money from a real inheritance?”
The lawyer raised his eyebrows as if this was an absurd question. “We’re talking about real money. Don’t worry.”
“I mean, if you are joking with me I’m gonna strangle someone, and I don’t know if the TV audience will like that.”
“I can assure you that the only reason we are here is to make you a wealthy man.”
“Okay.” He really wasn’t worried about all this, but he just had to say what he just said. It’s as if he got rid of the danger that this was not true simply by mentioning it. Something gave him the impression that all this was indeed true. It felt hot in here. Odd, when they entered the room it felt cool, as if the air conditioner was set to max low temperature. Now he felt as if his blood was about to boil in his veins. Was he developing a fever? Maybe it was just the aftermath of the night before last, when he had to go home by foot and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, where the chilly moist air blew in from the ocean making him feel like an icicle.
For some reason he glanced down. His jeans suddenly looked shabby to him, his jacket … the ends of the sleeves were a bit frayed. He had never noticed before. The cloth was beginning to wear thin. His shirt was a rag, bought from a second-hand shop. It hadn’t even been a nice shirt when it was new. Junk. Crap. He caught Eduard’s eye, who was grinning at him silently, as if he knew what was going through John’s head. John felt the red in his face … hot, throbbing embarrassment. The skyline outside the windows still looked like a shiny dream made of glass and crystal. So now he was a man of means. John Salvatore Fontanelli; son of a New Jersey shoemaker, has made it, without any personal contribution, without doing anything for it, simply by fate. Maybe he always knew about this deep down inside and that’s why he never made any great efforts. Maybe a fairy whispered to him as he lay in his crib that this day would come?
“Okay,” he said, clapped his hands once and rubbed them together. “And now what?”
“You will accept the inheritance?”
The lawyer nodded satisfied and closed the folder. John leaned back and took a deep breath. What a day! He felt like he was filled with champagne, with many, many funny little bubbles rising inside him and erupting as a silly giggle in his upper chest.
He was curious how an inheritance such as this would be processed. How he would receive the money; he thought it would hardly be in cash. They couldn’t do a bank transfer because he no longer had a bank account. Maybe he would get a check. That’s it! And it would be an indescribable pleasure to take it to the same bank that closed his account, and to shove the four million dollar check under that person’s nose that was in charge of his account, and to see the stupid face he would make! It would be pure, tremendous gratification to act like a stuck up rich bastard!
Someone cleared his throat. John looked up and returned to reality from his pleasant daydream. It was Alberto Vacchi clearing his throat as he opened the folder that was lying in front of him.
John looked at Eduardo. He looked at his father Gregorio. Alberto, the uncle, was next to catch John’s eye. “Now don’t tell me that there’s even more.”
Albert laughed just a bit. It sounded like the cooing of a pigeon. “Yes,” he said.
“More than four million dollars?”
John’s heart beat faster again. His lungs pumped like a pair of bellows. John lifted a hand. “Wait. Slow down. Four million was a nice sum. Why overdo it? Four million is enough to make any man happy. More than that would … well, be too much …”
The Italian man looked at him from underneath his bushy eyebrows. His eyes had an odd twinkle to them. “This is the only condition that must be fulfilled to get the inheritance, John. You either take it all … or nothing.”
John swallowed hard. “Is it more than double?” he asked hastily, as if he tried to avert a curse.
“Much more than that.”
“More than ten times as much? More than forty million?”
“John, you must start learning to think big. That will not be easy, and, God knows, I’m not jealous of you.” Alberto nodded encouragingly, almost conspiratorially, as if he was trying to encourage him to enter a house of ill repute. “Think big, John.”
“More than …?” John stopped. He once read about the fortunes of certain noteworthy musicians in a magazine. Madonna, so it said, had around 60 million and Michael Jackson double that. Tops was ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, with an estimated 500 million dollars. He started to feel dizzy. “More than twenty times as much?” He wanted to say “a hundred times,” but didn’t dare. The possibility that he might come into a vast fortune approaching those of such legends, just like that, without doing anything for it and without a lick of talent seemed obscene.
For a moment it was quiet. The lawyer looked at him and said nothing as he chewed his lip. Then he finally said, “Get used to the amount of two billion.” Then he added, “Dollars.”
John stared at him. Something heavy … something heavy as lead seemed to have been placed onto everyone present in the room. This was no fun anymore. The sunlight shining through the windows blinded him; it hurt like the bright light of a lamp used for interrogation.
No fun at all.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” John simply asked with dry lips.
Alberto Vacchi nodded.
John looked around nervously, as if he tried to find a way out. BILLIONS! The number rested on him like a ton of weight, pressing his shoulders down, crushing him, and squeezing his skull together. Billions; that was a dimension he never even would have dreamed of. Billions. That means being on the same level as Rockefeller, the Rothschilds, the Saudi Arabian oil sheiks, and Japanese real estate magnates. Billions. That was more than wealth — that was craziness!
His heart was still pounding. A muscle was twitching in his lower right leg and seemed to not want to stop anymore. He had to calm down. This is starting to be too much for him. Such a thing simply did not happen — not in the world he grew up in. Four strangers show up one day just to tell him that he has inherited two billion dollars? No. It cannot be. Something was wrong here. Although he had no idea how an inheritance proceeding is usually performed, this seemed too farfetched.
He tried to remember how this was done in the movies he’d seen. Dammit, he watched so many films. He spent his childhood and youth more or less in front of TVs and in movie theaters. How was it? A last will and testament was revealed … that’s it! When someone died a testament was read out, in front of all those who were mentioned in it. Then they would hear from the notary how much each person would get. Finally they would all get into a fight over it. That’s how it goes.
What exactly happens when someone died and left a fortune behind? The first ones to get anything are the spouse and the children, weren’t they? How could it be that he got to inherit something and his brothers didn’t? And why was he getting anything at all when his father was still alive?
There was something not quite right here.
His heartbeat and his breathing leveled off a bit. Just don’t count your chickens before they hatch. It was time to be skeptical. John cleared his throat. “I have to ask a stupid question,” he began. “Of all people, why do I inherit anything at all? Why me?”
The lawyer nodded gently. “We have performed a very detailed and thorough investigation. We would have never invited you to such a discussion if we were not one hundred percent certain.”
“Fine … you are sure, but I’m not. Did you know that I have two brothers? Don’t I have to share the inheritance with them?”
“In this case, no.”
“You have been chosen to be the sole heir.”
“Sole heir? Who in the hell decided that I should be the sole heir of two billion dollars? I mean, my father is a shoemaker. And though I don’t know too much about my family’s history, I’m sure we have no billionaires. The richest person in my family is Uncle Giuseppe, who owns a taxi company in Naples with ten or twelve cabs.”
“That’s correct.” Alberto Vacchi smiled. “And he’s alive and well as far as we’re informed.”
“Okay, then where is all this money coming from?”
“You sound as if you’re not very interested in the inheritance.”
John could feel himself getting angry. He hardly ever got angry, and even less so really angry. But here and now it may happen that he got really angry. “Why are you being so mysterious? Why are you making such a secret out of this? Why won’t you just tell me that so-and-so died?”
The lawyer looked through his papers. It looked like a diversionary maneuver. Like someone who was paging through an empty schedule pretending to have a hard time finding an opening for an appointment. “This is not,” he finally admitted, “a normal inheritance case. Normally, there is a testament, an estate attorney and a probate. The money involved in this case belongs to an endowment. In a way one could say that the money belongs to itself. We have only functioned as its trustees since the testator’s death, which was a very long time ago. He decreed that the fortune is to be bestowed upon the youngest male heir who is alive on the twenty-third of April, 1995. And that is you.”
“The twenty-third of April …” John’s eyes narrowed. “That was the day before yesterday. Why then?”
Alberto shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what it says.”
“And I’m the youngest Fontanelli? Are you sure?”
“Your uncle Giuseppe has a fifteen-year-old daughter. But a daughter does not count. A cousin of your father had a sixteen year old son, Lorenzo. But, as you probably know, he died suddenly two weeks ago.”
John stared at the highly polished burl tabletop as if it were an oracle. It might really be as the man said; his brother Cesare and his wife always got on his nerves at Christmas get-togethers with lengthy discussions how useless and even how criminal it was to have children in this day and age. And Lino — well, his only interest is airplanes. John’s mother told him recently on the phone about a Lorenzo who had died due to something ridiculously mundane … a bee sting or something like that. Yes, whenever his Italian relatives were being discussed, it always involved weddings and divorces and diseases and deaths, but hardly ever children. It might very well be true. “What form exactly does this two billion dollars take?” he asked. “I suppose they are stocks and bonds and oil wells and such?”
“Money,” Alberto answered. “Just money. Money in countless savings accounts in countless banks around the globe.”
John had a sour feeling in his stomach as he stared at him. “And I’m getting all this just because I happen to be the youngest Fontanelli as of two days ago? What sense does this make?”
The lawyer looked at him pensively for a long moment. “I don’t know what sense it makes,” he admitted. “It’s just how it is. Just like so much else in life.”
John felt dizzy. Dizzy and dirty — a man dressed in rags that hardly pass as clothing. There was still this voice inside him that told him he was the butt of a joke or fraud or deception and that he was being scammed. And there was still this feeling very deep inside of him like the granite foundation of Manhattan that was telling him that this voice was very wrong and that it was nothing more than the product of the many hours of watching TV, where nothing so unbelievably good ever happened to anyone like him. The dramatic composition of movies and shows doesn’t allow for such a thing. Something like this can happen only in real life. Wasn’t there a saying? Truth is stranger than fiction.
The feeling he had when he entered these chambers — to be at the threshold of a transition in his life — was still there; stronger than before. Only, now he feared to be crushed by this turnaround.
Two billion dollars!
He could dare to ask for money up-front. If they came to give him two billion dollars, then they could fess-up a few thousand dollars without it hurting anyone financially. Then he could get his own lawyer who would get to the bottom of whatever was going on. His old friend Paul Siegel came to mind. Paul knew lawyers. He knew the best lawyer in town. That’s it. John took a deep breath.
“The question,” Alberto Vacchi, lawyer and asset manager from Florence, Italy, said softly, “is still the same. Will you accept the inheritance?”
Was being wealthy a good thing? Up to today he had always spent his time trying not to be so poor. He had always condemned the wealthy. But on the other hand, life was so much easier and more comfortable if you had money. Not having it meant always making late payments. Having no choice. Having to do certain things — whether you wanted to or not. It had to be true, the old saying that you were better off with money than without. He exhaled. “The answer,” he said, and thought it sounded cool, “is also still the same. Yes.”
Alberto Vacchi smiled. His smile felt warm and genuine. “I congratulate you,” he said, closing the folder.
John felt a surge of relief, and sank back into the cushion of his chair. So, now he was a billionaire. Worse things could happen. He looked at the three lawyers sitting across from him, like an induction committee, and he almost grinned.
It was at that moment that the old man sitting by the window rose from his chair.
JOHN’S CHILDHOOD had been full of mysterious men. They came alone, or in pairs, or groups of three. They had watched him from the edge of playgrounds, smiled at him as he went to school, talked about him when they thought he couldn’t understand them or was out of earshot. “That’s him,” they said in Italian and, “We must still wait.” They talked about how difficult it was — the waiting. His mother had been alarmed when he came home and told her about the men. For a long time he wasn’t allowed out of the house alone. From his window he had watched the other children play outside. He started to keep it to himself when the men showed up. One day he did not see them anymore, and they gradually faded into the dim recesses of his memories.
When he turned twelve he discovered that Angelo, his father’s most distinguished customer, had a secret. To John Mr. Angelo had always been like a messenger from heaven. Not only because he always looked so sophisticated, sitting on a stool by the workbench with father, dressed in a white suit, speaking Italian casually with father and his stocking feet resting on the metal bar. No, his first visit of the year meant summer was near; wonderful endless weeks of ice cream, splashing around in kiddy pools on hot afternoons, trips to Coney Island, and warm nights. For his second visit of the year, he dressed in a gray suit, then, when he handed his shoes to his father and wanted to know how the family was doing, then summer was just about over and autumn was near. “They are good Italian shoes,” John heard his father tell his mother once. “Wonderfully soft, made for Italian weather. Fairly old, but very well maintained, I have to admit. I bet you can’t buy shoes like these nowhere these days.”
It was natural to John for heavenly messengers to wear special shoes.
On one particular day, when the summer of 1979 — and more than just the summer — was coming to an end, only no one knew it yet, John was allowed to go with his best friend Paul Siegel and his mother to JFK airport. Jimmy Carter was still president and the hostage crisis in Teheran had not begun yet. It was the summer when Garfunkel sang “Bright Eyes” and the Village People sang “Y.M.C.A.,” and Paul’s father was supposed to return from a business trip in Europe. Paul’s parents owned a watch store on 13th Street. His father could tell exciting stories about the robberies he had been through. There was even a real bullet hole on the wall in the back of the store, covered by a framed photo of Paul as a baby.
It was the first time in his life he had been to JFK, and together with his friend Paul they squashed their noses against the large windows in the terminal to watch the passengers come and go.
“They’re all arriving from Rome,” Paul explained. Paul was very smart. On their way to the airport, Paul told him the history of New York perhaps all the way back to the Stone Age. He told him all about Wall Street, and who built the Brooklyn Bridge and when it was inaugurated and went on and on. “Dad is arriving on a flight from Copenhagen. The plane will be at least a half hour late.”
“Great,” John said. He was in no hurry to get back home.
“Let’s count the men who have beards,” Paul suggested. That was typical Paul. He always had ideas what to do. “Only those with full beards and whoever gets to ten first wins. Okay? I already see one, over there, the one with the red briefcase!”
John narrowed his eyes and concentrated. There was no chance of beating Paul in a game like this, but he had to try.
That was when he discovered Mr. Angelo.
It was him, without a doubt; the light-gray suit, the way he moved, the face. John blinked, expecting him to disappear again, like a phantom, but Mr. Angelo didn’t. He walked along amidst the other arrivals from Rome without looking up and carrying nothing but a plastic bag.
“The man with the brown coat,” Paul said. “That’s two.”
A man in uniform stopped Mr. Angelo, pointed at the bag and said something. Mr. Angelo opened the bag and took out two shoes; a brown one and a black one.
“Hey,” Paul complained, “You’re not even playing.”
“I think it’s boring,” John told his friend without taking his eye away from Mr. Angelo and the uniformed man.
The uniformed man was visibly surprised, and he asked something. Mr. Angelo answered with the shoes still in his hand. The man in uniform then gestured to Mr. Angelo to go on, whereby he put the shoes back into the bag and went through one of the automatic doors.
“You’re just scared to lose,” Paul said.
“I always lose anyhow,” John responded.
Later that evening John found out that Mr. Angelo had indeed been in father’s workshop. He had left some gifts for the children; chocolate and a ten dollar bill for John. When John took the chocolate and the ten dollars he had an uneasy feeling, like discovering a secret that should’ve remained a secret.
“I saw Mr. Angelo at the airport,” he said, nevertheless. “He arrived on a flight from Rome, and all he had with him were his shoes.”
Mother took hold of John, hugged him and sighed, “Oh, my little dreamer.”
That’s what she always called him. She had just finished talking about Rome; about a cousin who was born to some relatives there. John thought it odd to have relatives in Italy whom he’d never met.
“Mr. Angelo lives in Brooklyn,” father explained. “He comes here sometimes, because he knew the man who had the shop before me.”
John shook his head, but said nothing else. There was nothing else to say. The secret was revealed. He knew that Mr. Angelo would never come again. And he didn’t.
The following year his brother Cesare, who was nine years older than he, got married and moved to Chicago. His brother Lino, who was six years older than John, didn’t get married, but joined the Air Force to become a pilot. In the space of a month, John suddenly found himself the only child at home.
He finished high school; his grades were not good but not bad either. His classmates considered him an inconspicuous and quiet boy, who lived in a world of his own and wasn’t very sociable. He had a certain amount of interest in history and English literature, but no one would have trusted him with organizing the prom. The girls considered him a nice boy, which meant they were not afraid to walk with him down a dark alleyway. The only kiss he ever got in high school was during a New Year’s Eve party. A friend had to practically drag him along and when he finally got there he stood around uncomfortably for the most part. When the other boys talked about their sexual adventures, he simply remained quiet. No one asked.
Paul Siegel was awarded a scholarship and went to Harvard after high school. John enrolled at the nearby Hopkins Junior College, mainly because he could afford it and could stay at home. He didn’t have any plans for the future.
It was the summer of 1988 when the concert for Nelson Mandela was held in London’s Wembley Stadium. It was broadcast around the world. John and a few people from his class went to Central Park. Someone had put up a large screen and speakers, so that people could watch the London concert in the sunshine. They’d all smuggled in various forms of liquor to further enhance the event.
“Who is Nelson Mandela?” John asked.
Although he hadn’t asked anyone in particular, a rather chunky black-haired girl beside him explained that he was the leader of a South African freedom movement who had been imprisoned innocently for twenty-five years.
Before he knew it, he was involved in a conversation, and since the girl had a lot to say, it went very well. The hot June sun shone down on the crowd as she talked, getting them all hot and sweaty. The music blared out of the speakers, interrupted only by announcements, explanations, and appeals to the South African government to free Nelson Mandela. As the day went on the screen became less and less clear.
Sarah Brickman had twinkling eyes and skin as white as fine porcelain. At one point she suggested they retreat into the shade under a tree or large bush, as many other concert goers had done. So they did. Then kissed, their lips salty from the sweat. While the chorus, “Free … Nelson … Mandela … free … Nelson … Mandela!” droned across the field, John unhooked Sarah’s bra. Considering that he was doing this for the first time in his life, and that he had more alcohol in his blood than ever before, he mastered that feat very well.
When he awoke the next morning with a pounding head, he found himself lying in a strange bed. But when he saw the black locks beside him on the pillow, he knew he must have done something right, even though he could not remember all the details. Accompanied by his mother’s tears, he later moved out of his parents’ house and into the small drafty apartment on the West side that Sarah had inherited from her parents.
Sarah Brickman was an artist. She painted large wild paintings in gloomy colors that no one wanted to buy. About once a year she displayed her work for one or two weeks in an art gallery, which charged a fee and took a commission. And every time she either sold no paintings or too few even to pay the gallery. For days afterwards she was hard to talk to.
John found a night job in a laundromat and learned how to fold shirts and use the laundry press. He burned both his hands during the first week, but the money was enough to pay the electric bills and buy food. For a while he tried to keep up with his studies at college, but he now had a long commute, and he still didn’t know what good going to school would do him. So one day he quit, without even telling his parents. They found out a few months later, which led to a hefty argument in which the word ‘whore’ was used, referring to Sarah. John refused to see his family for a long time afterwards.
He was always impressed to see Sarah standing before the scaffold wearing a paint-smeared smock over her clothes and a quirky expression on her face. In the evenings Sarah would drag him to smoke-filled bars in Greenwich Village, where she would talk with other artists about art and business. He had a hard time figuring out what they would go on and on about, but that was kind of cool too. He felt he had found a niche in life. But Sarah’s friends weren’t so ready to share their niche in life with a redneck from nowhere. They laughed at him when he said something, or ignored him or rolled their eyes when he asked questions. For them he was nothing more than Sarah’s lover, her sidekick, her cuddly bear.
The only person in the group he could talk to was a fellow outsider, Marvin Copeland, the boyfriend of another artist, Brenda Carrington. Marvin shared an apartment with a few other people in Brooklyn, made a meager living as a bassist in various unsuccessful bands, and wrote his own songs, which no one wanted to play. He spent a lot of time looking out of his window or smoking marijuana, and there wasn’t a crazy idea he didn’t believe. He was as convinced of the government’s involvement in hiding the Roswell aliens in Area 51 as he was about the healing powers of pyramids and gems. The only conspiracy theory he doubted was that Elvis was still alive. He always made for entertaining company.
John and Sarah got into fights on a regular basis over her art. It was bad when he thought one of her paintings was good while she disagreed, and it was even worse when he doubted her self-proclaimed masterpieces. One day he decided to learn what made a picture good or bad. Since he had no idea what Sarah and her friends were talking about, he started to read books about art and spent whole days in the Museum of Modern Art, where he mixed inconspicuously with other visitors, following the tour guides, until he began to be recognized and they started asking him embarrassing questions. He paid close attention to the explanations about the paintings, about which he was both enthusiastic and uncomprehending, and he thought that painting could be the one thing in his life he was looking for. Why hadn’t he discovered this before? How could he have, with his father a shoemaker, one brother an IRS officer and the other a military pilot? He started to paint.
That was not a good idea as it later turned out. He thought that Sarah would be happy, but instead she criticized everything he did and even badmouthed his efforts to her friends. John was convinced that everything she said was true, and he humbly accepted the critique and used it as motivation to work even harder. He would have loved to take lessons, but, even if he found time for them, he wouldn’t have been able to afford them.
At one stage there was a painting course on TV. It came on at four in the morning and was hacked up with commercials, but he didn’t miss a single episode. It showed how to paint mountain lakes lined with pine trees, or windmills in stunning sunsets. Without having ever seen them in real life, he found he was able to follow the instructions and do a fairly decent job recreating the scenes; even Sarah didn’t criticize him anymore, she just rolled her eyes.
One day there was a short report about Sarah Brickman and her work in a local art periodical, which she cut out, framed, and proudly hung it over her bed. Not long after that article was published, a young potential buyer from Wall Street with slicked back hair appeared. He wore a wide-striped shirt with suspenders and he explained several times that he saw art as a form of investment and that he wanted to secure artwork from talented artists before they might become famous. He thought this was a great idea. Sarah took him into her studio and showed him her paintings, but he found it difficult to understand them. Only when he saw one of John’s early works, a silhouette of a city done with a wild mix of colors, which Sarah had only scoffed at, did he show much enthusiasm. He offered ten thousand dollars, and John just nodded.
The buyer and painting were hardly out the door when Sarah stomped into the bathroom, slammed the door shut and locked herself in. John, still holding the bundle of money in his hand, knocked on the door and wanted to know what the matter was.
“Do you know that you just earned more money with that shitty cityscape than I have in my entire life?” she cried.
Their relationship was never the same, and it ended a short while later in February 1990. Sarah told John that it was over on the same day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
He moved in with Marvin and his housemates. It so happened that an uncomfortable narrow room had just become available. He sat there on the floor with his few belongings, still not understanding what had happened.
Selling the painting of the city’s silhouette was to be his only success as an artist, and the money was spent faster than he could have imagined. After he was forced to move, he had to quit his job at the laundry. After a few weeks of running around chasing job ads, during which his bank account shrank down to zero, he finally got hired as a delivery man for a pizzeria run by someone from India, who preferred hiring young, Italian-looking men to work outside the kitchen. A job like this in south Manhattan meant having to snake your way through the more or less stationary traffic with a bicycle and to know all the short cuts through narrow alleys. It was a job that made his legs and lungs strong, but he still managed to develop a sort of smoker’s cough due to all the exhaust he inhaled. On top of that, he barely earned enough money to survive.
He might have had just enough space to paint inside his little room, but even on sunny days there was hardly enough light, and he also lacked the time to commit to art. His shift often ended late at night and he was so tired that he slept like a log, until his alarm clock would wake him up to start all over again. Every time he took a day off to go to a job interview his bank account would slip a bit more into the red.
This is how Paul Siegel found him when he returned to New York with an awe-inspiring diploma from Harvard in his pocket and a well-paid job at a consulting company that counted nearly every renowned international company and quite a few governments among its clients.
John visited him once in his tastefully arranged apartment in West Village and marveled at the view over the Hudson River while Paul told him — as merciless as only a good friend can — everything he was doing wrong in his life.
“First you have to lose your debts; as long as you’re in debt, you’re not free,” he explained. “Then you have to get some breathing space so you can go in a new direction, but above all you need to know what you want from life.”
“Yeah,” John said, “you’re right.”
But he couldn’t wish away his debts or figure out an idea of what he wanted out of his life.
To set his establishment apart from the others, Murali, the owner of the pizzeria John worked for, got the hair-brained idea to guarantee delivery within thirty minutes for every customer south of the Empire State Building. Anyone who had to wait longer got their pizza free. It was an idea from some book Murali hadn’t even read, but had been told about. The results were devastating. Each delivery man got four “lates” a week for free, after that the cost of the “free” pizza was taken from the man’s pay. During busy times the pizza was already late when it came out of the oven.
John’s bank closed his account, he got into an argument with Marvin because he paid the rent late, and he hardly had anything left over to take to the pawnshop. In the end he sold the pocket watch he got from his father on his First Communion, which proved a bad idea since he ended up feeling too guilty to visit his parents — the only place he was invited to eat for free once in a while since breaking up with Sarah. On some days he was actually suffering from hunger pangs while he transported the flat boxes smelling of delicious pizza.
That’s how 1995 started. Once in a while the men from John’s youth appeared in his dreams; they waved at him and smiled and said things he didn’t understand. London’s Baring’s Bank went broke after one of its employees, Nick Leeson, mismanaged huge sums of money. The Japanese Aum Shiri Kyo sect killed twelve people and injured five thousand others with poison gas in the Tokyo subways, and 186 people got killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Bill Clinton was still president, but had a tough time after his party lost its majority in both houses of Congress.
John realized that he hadn’t painted for over a year and that time had somehow just simply slipped away. He had a feeling that he was waiting for something, but he didn’t know what it was.
The 23rd of April wasn’t exactly a lucky day. First, it was a Sunday and he had to work. There was a message from his mother waiting for him at the pizzeria telling him to call home. Luckily, the phone in Marvin’s apartment hardly ever worked. John threw the note away and concentrated on his deliveries, which like most Sundays were few. He knew he’d end up barely earning anything for his trips to the craziest addresses. Since he had already used up his “lates” for the week, he pedaled his fastest to be on time. Maybe it was the stress that caused the accident. He rode out from between two buildings onto a street, braked a bit too late and rammed a car that looked like something the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street would climb into. The bike was a heap of junk after the collision, the pizza was ruined, and the car drove off as if nothing happened. John looked after the dark-red tail lights of the car as he rubbed his knee through his ripped jeans and realized it could have ended much worse for him.
Murali was ranting at him when John came limping back. The two exchanged unkind words, and then John lost his job.
John went home with ten cents in his pocket and a bunch of pent-up anger. He walked through a night that got colder the longer he took. During the last miles in Brooklyn, sleet began to pour down, and by the time John got home he didn’t know if he was a frozen stiff, or stiffly frozen.
When he opened the door the room was wonderfully warm with the aroma of eggs and cigarettes. Marvin sat with his legs crossed in the kitchen, his Fender Jazz Bass plugged into the amp and the volume turned up loud enough that it was just audible above the bare strings. Instead of tweaking wildly on the strings like he usually did, he simply plucked them making dull sounds, much like a heart beat; du-dum, du-dum, du-dum.
“Someone was here asking for you,” he said when John went to the bathroom.
“What?” John stopped. Take a leak and go to bed; that’s what he had told himself over and over again on the freezing walk home for the past hour. “Me?”
“No idea. Just some men.” Du-dum, du-dum. "Two men in fancy suits, ties, tie clips, and everything. They wanted to know if a John Salvatore Fontanelli lives here.”
John took the few steps into the kitchen. Stoically, Marvin kept plucking at the strings. Du-dum, du-dum, du-dum. “John Salvatore,” Marvin said shaking his head. “I didn’t even know you had a middle name. By the way, you look like shit.”
“Thanks. Murali fired me.”
“Not nice of him. Especially since we have to pay the rent next week.” Du-dum, du-dum, du-dum. Without losing the rhythm, Marvin reached over to the table and handed John a business card. “Here, I’m supposed to give you this.”
It was an expensive looking, four-color business card with a fancy looking coat-of-arms on it. It said:
Currently at: The Waldorf Astoria
301 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y.
John stared at the card. He felt heavy and lethargic from the warmth in the kitchen. “Eduard Vacchi … Can’t say I ever heard the name before. Did they tell you what they want with me?”
“You’re supposed to call him. He said, ‘If he comes home, give him the card and tell him to call me. It’s very important.’” Du-dum, du-dum, du-dum. “Something about an inheritance.” Du-dum, du-dum. “To me it sounds like money; could be cool, maybe.”
THE OLD MAN — the Padrone, as Eduardo called him, took the pillow that had been resting on his lap, and placed it on a small table next to his chair. Then he stood up, which because of his rheumatism took a bit of effort. He pulled his sweater together with arthritic hands and smiled gently to everyone.
John sat there stiffly. His mind went blank for the moment.
The old man — or the Padrone — or Eduardo’s grandfather, came closer with silent and measured steps. He slowly went around the table, as if he had all the time in the world. When he went past John, behind his chair, he pated John’s shoulder in a kindly manner; real gently and casually, as if the Padrone was adopting him into their family, so to speak. He ended his casual walk around the table, sat down on the empty chair, and opened the last folder.
John’s mind was not able to figure out what was going on here. Maybe it was like in those IQ tests? We have the numbers 2 — 4 — 6 — 8. What is the next logical number? Right — 10. We have the numbers 2 — 4 — 8 — 16. What is the next logical number? Right — 32. We have the numbers 80,000 — 4,000,000 — 2,000,000,000. What is the next logical number?
But logic ended right there for John. Maybe they weren’t lawyers at all. Maybe they were crazy people, playing a crazy game. Maybe he was the victim of a psychology experiment. Maybe this is nothing more than a form of Candid Camera.
“My name is Cristoforo Vacchi,” the old man said with a gentle yet firm voice, “and I’m a lawyer from Florence, Italy.” He looked at John in such a manner that made John dismiss any idea that this could be a psychology experiment or a TV game show. This was real, was true, this was indisputably authentic.
There was a pause. John felt as if he was expected use his dry throat, and swollen, football-sized tongue to say something, to ask something, to articulate something, but he found no words to express what he felt. The only thing he brought out was a whisper-like utterance: “More money?”
The Padrone nodded compassionately. “Yes, John, more money.”
It was hard to guess how old Cristoforo Vacchi was, but it was safe to say that he was at least eighty. There wasn’t much left of his snow-white hair. His skin was loose and full of spots and wrinkles. But he still looked like someone who was very competent and in control of things when he folded his hands together gracefully and looked at the papers. Anyone who saw this, otherwise fragile looking man, would never get the idea that he could be anywhere near senile. The idea was simply too ridiculous
“I will tell you the whole story,” he said. John now understood that it had been left up to the old man to give it to him, so to speak. “It began in the year 1480 in Florence, Italy. It was then that your ancestor, Giacomo Fontanelli, was born out of wedlock. His mother found shelter for him in a monastery under the leadership of a merciful abbot. The boy grew up amongst monks. When he was fifteen years old on April 23, 1495, Giacomo had a dream, or perhaps it’s better to call it a vision, even though he always called it a dream in his writings. It was a vision so bright and intense that it influenced the rest of his life. The monks had taught him how to read, to write and to do math. Not long after his dream he moved away to become a merchant and trader. He worked in Rome and especially in Venice, which was an economic powerhouse in southern Europe back then. He later got married and had six children — all sons, who later, for the most part, also became merchants. Giacomo, however, returned to the monastery in 1525 to realize the rest of his dream.”
John shook his head. “I keep hearing about a dream. What dream?”
“The dream he had at fifteen was a dream in which Giacomo Fontanelli saw the future of his own life. He saw his future wife and, among other things, what a successful business he would have. But, far more important than that, he foresaw a time five hundred years into the future, which he described as a time filled with misery and pathetic fear, a time in which no one saw a real future anymore. And he saw that it was the will of Divine Providence — the will of God, you could say, for him to bequeath his fortune to the youngest heir alive on the five hundredth anniversary of his dream. This man would be the chosen one to give humanity its lost future back, and he would do this with Giacomo Fontanelli’s fortune.”
“Me?” John cried out.
“You,” the Padrone said while nodding.
“I’m what? The chosen one? Do I look like someone who is chosen to do anything?”
“We’re only speaking about a historic fact,” Cristoforo Vacchi responded gently. “What I told you here you will be able to read in your ancestor’s last will and testament. I only told you what his motive was.”
“Oh. So, God appeared in his vision, and that’s why I’m here today?”
“That’s just too crazy, don’t you think?”
The old man lifted his hands and said, “That’s for you to decide.”
“Give humanity their future. Me, of all people?” John sighed. There you see what visions and holy dreams are worth: nothing! Sure, hardly a person these days saw a future anymore. Everyone was virtually waiting for humanity to go down the drain for any one of a multitude of reasons. The end was near, that was for sure. There were enough reasons for fear: fear of a nuclear holocaust, though that had faded a bit over the years. But plagues and epidemics had been appearing more frequently — AIDS, Ebola, mad cow disease, and so forth. Not to mention the hole in the ozone layer and the expansion of the world’s deserts, and he had recently heard that drinking water would soon become scarce. No, there really was no reason to believe in the future. And he, John Salvatore Fontanelli, was no exception. Quite the contrary; while his peers had at least managed to secure their immediate futures by buying houses, making families and earning stable incomes, he managed to get by one day at a time and even to suppress near future realities like paying next month’s rent. Really, if there was someone less likely to restore humanity’s lost future then John Fontanelli would have liked to have known who it was.
The old man looked at his files again. “In the year 1525, as I said, Giacomo Fontanelli returned to the monastery where he grew up in and told the abbot about his vision. They agreed that this dream had been sent to him by God — a dream like in the biblical story where the pharaoh had a God-given dream, and which Joseph interpreted, telling him that his dream meant seven years of great plenty and then seven years of famine, upon which they decided to do something about it. Giacomo Fontanelli’s entire fortune was placed in the hands of the abbot’s friend, to be managed by him. He was a legal scholar by the name of Michelangelo Vacchi …”
“Oh?” John uttered.
“Yes, my ancestor.”
“Are you trying to tell me that your family managed the fortune of my family all this time simply to give it to me today?”
“That is correct.”
“For five hundred years?”
“Yes. The Vacchis had been legal scholars for five hundred years. The house that is our firm’s main office is the same one as back then.”
Baffled, John shook his head. Baffled by not only the incredible story but also by the stoic and calm manner the old man told it to him. History lessons all but forgotten long ago began to creep back into his mind, sending a shiver down his spine. As Christopher Columbus was sailing back from discovering America, one of his ancestors had a God-given dream and was amassing a fortune. This old man was trying to tell him was that between the time of America’s discovery and man walking on the moon, this family of Italian lawyers had practically done nothing save manage his family’s fortune, based on nothing more than a dream, and all this in the same house! “Five hundred years?” John repeated. “That’s … I don’t know how many generations. Hasn’t anyone ever thought about keeping those two billion dollars for himself?”
“Never,” Cristoforo Vacchi said casually.
“But, no one would’ve ever found out! Even now, after you told me everything, I find it hard to believe.”
“No one would have known — that may be true,” the old man admitted. “But God would have.”
“Ah,” was all John managed. That’s what it was.
The Padrone spread his hands apart. “Perhaps I should set a few things straight. Naturally, your ancestor composed a set of clear and concise rules how our services as fund manager were to be recompensed, which we followed precisely, and we lived very well off of that income, if I may say so. Of course, we still have all the books that contain every transaction to and from banks and our remunerations, which can be examined at any time.”
Yeah, John thought, I bet they can!
“And, of course,” the aged Vacchi added, “the original amount of the fortune wasn’t two billion dollars. There was probably not so much money around back then. The fortune that Giacomo Fontanelli had when he donated it to the fund was three hundred florins. Today, this would be equal to around ten thousand dollars.”
The old man nodded, causing his floppy and wrinkly skin on his neck to look something like a dinosaur’s. “You have to consider the exchange rate and the buying power. Three hundred florins was quite a fortune, when you consider what it could buy back then. Today, that amount of money isn’t considered a fortune at all. Our trip to New York alone would have consumed most of it already. Countless types of monies and monetary reforms usually cloud the simple fact that inflation gnaws on all fortunes, large and small. But, Giacomo Fontanelli had a mighty ally,” the Padrone added meaningfully, “and that is compound interest.”
“Compound interest?” John echoed like a dummy.
“Let me explain: In 1525, around ten thousand dollars were deposited in an institute we would call a bank today. There were no banks back then as they exist today, but at that time in history there was a flourishing economy in Europe, especially in Italy, and along with it a well-functioning capital market. Remember that Florence was a metropolis of money during the fourteenth century, controlled by bankers such as the Bardi and Peruzzi, then by the Medici during the fifteenth century. There was a church ban on interest rates, but it was ignored, because a capital market cannot exist without interest rates. No one would loan money if he didn’t get something out of it. When Giacomo Fontanelli invested his fortune, it fit well with the flourishing and well-functioning money market of the sixteenth century. My ancestor, Michelangelo Vacchi, chose to make a relatively unchallenging investment, which brought in four percent interest. That means that at the end of 1525 there was about four hundred dollars of interest from the ten thousand dollars, which was added to the whole. In the following year it wasn’t ten thousand dollars earning interest, but ten thousand and four hundred dollars. And so forth.”
“I’ve read enough credit card statements, I know what compound interest is,” John grumbled, still waiting for the grand finale — the discovery of the Inca treasure, a motherlode, or whatever. “But that’s still only peanuts, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” the old man said with a smile. He took a sheet of paper that had long rows of numbers on it. “Like most people, you underestimate what compound interest plus time can accomplish. It is a simple matter to figure out, because, even though the numbers vary slightly from time to time, we still have an effective interest rate of four percent that we were able to maintain over the time period. This means that in 1530, there was twelve thousand dollars in today’s money. In 1540 it was eighteen thousand, and by 1543 the original sum had more than doubled. And, of course, the interest returns as well.”
John suspected something, even though he didn’t know what it was. But it had to be something big … something breathtaking. Like seeing a massive iceberg dwarfing a big ship or a mammoth tree falling over.
“And so,” Cristoforo smiled, “it went on, just like the fable with the chess set and the grains of rice. Four percent interest plus compound interest meant that the money doubled every eighteen years. There were twenty-six thousand dollars in the fortune by 1550, and in 1600 it was one hundred and ninety thousand. It was over one million dollars in 1643. In 1700 it was nine and a half million and in 1800 it was forty-eight million dollars and it reached one billion by 1819 …”
“My God,” John said under his breath and felt the weight on his body again, about to crush him. Only this time it came without mercy; all those big numbers.
“With the start of the twentieth century,” the old man continued remorselessly, “the Fontanelli fortune had grown to over twenty-four billion dollars, dispersed in thousands of bank accounts. When World War Two started it was one hundred and twelve billion dollars and when it ended it was one hundred and forty-two billion dollars. Up to the final day, which was yesterday, the fortune — your fortune — has grown to a nice rounded sum of one trillion dollars.” He grinned smugly. “All down to compound interest, plus time.”
John looked stupidly at the lawyer. He moved his lower jaw without a sound coming from his mouth. He cleared his throat and, like someone suffering from tuberculosis, he croaked: “One trillion dollars?”
“One trillion. That is a thousand times one billion.” Cristoforo looked steadfastly and nodded. “This means that you are the richest human being on earth, even the richest man of all time — by far. This one trillion dollars will earn you forty billion dollars of interest this year alone. There are about two or three hundred billionaires, depending on how you look at it, but you will hardly find ten that can even match your interest gains of this single year. No one has ever owned even close to as much money as you now have.”
“If you want to look at it this way,” Eduardo Vacchi interjected enthusiastically, “you are four thousand dollars richer with every breath you take.”
John was near shock. To say that he could not fathom all this would be a gross understatement. His mind spun around in circles like the blades of a turbine, throwing around memories, fears, and painful experiences, all to do with money — or more accurately — the lack of it. The whole thing released such a flood of emotions that something inside him pulled the cord for the emergency brakes.
“One trillion dollars,” he mumbled. “Just from interest and compound interest.”
“And five hundred years of time,” Cristoforo Vacchi added.
“That is so simple. Anyone could have done that.”
“Yes. But no one did. No one except Giacomo Fontanelli,” the elder Vacchi said, “However, it wasn’t that easy. The banks naturally know about compound interest, and this is why all savings account contracts contain the small yet very significant clause that all interest payments are ceased after thirty years if no transactions were made. And that is exactly what they want to avoid; someone putting a small amount in a bank, forgets about it and a hundred years later someone finds it and has a fortune.” He smiled. “And this is why the Vacchis always made sure that the money moved. It was taken out of here and put in there, then the other way around. This was. In effect, all we did for the past five hundred years.”
“Just move money around in bank accounts?”
“Exactly. And I’m convinced that this is why the money grew, and grew and is still there, while so many other fortunes simply vanished with time. The owners of such fortunes never had so much time, only their own lifespans. They wanted to enjoy their money, so they spent it or took risks in investments. My family did none of this. We didn’t have to take risks; on the contrary, we avoided them. We didn’t want any part of the money, because it wasn’t ours. And, we had time, lots of time and a holy mission.” Cristoforo shook his head. “No, I do not believe that just anyone could have done the same. I believe that this was something quite unique — a one of a kind feat.”
There was a long moment of silence. John stared into space, too stunned from the whole business to do anything else. The four lawyers watched him carefully, observing how he struggled to get a grip on something that each of them had years of time to become accustomed to. They looked at him like some long lost family member who had been gone for years and was now finally back home.
“And now?” John Salvatore Fontanelli asked finally, surprised that it was still light outside, beyond the glass panes. He felt like hours must have passed by since he’d first entered the room.
“There are documents to work through,” Alberto Vacchi said and tugged at his kerchief. “The fortune must be signed over to you, and we will try to prevent inheritance tax and a number of other matters.”
“Your way of life will change,” Gregorio Vacchi said. “Of course we won’t be able to give you rules or regulations on how to handle your money, but since we have prepared for this moment for generations, we were able to develop a list of suggestions, which may prove to be to your benefit. For instance, you will need an office staff to handle the flood of begging letters that are sure to come in. And bodyguards, to prevent you from being kidnapped.”
“This is why,” Eduardo Vacchi added, “we suggest that you leave New York and come with us to Florence — at least for a while, until you’ve got used to your new life.”
John nodded slowly. Yes, all this would really take some time to digest. He would have to sleep on it. Go to Florence? Okay, why not. What was keeping him here in New York? One trillion dollars. The wealthiest man on earth. Really — the whole thing was a joke. “And then?” he asked.
“We’re just as curious,” said Cristoforo Vacchi.
“What do you mean with that?”
The old man made a vague gesture with his hands. “Well, you will have so much money at your disposal that entire countries will shudder at your decisions. That is the power you now have in your hands and what you do with it is your business alone.”
“What did Giacomo Fontanelli see in his dreams that I would do?”
“We do not know. He saw that you would do the right thing. He didn’t say anything else in the notes that were handed down to us.”
“The right thing? But what is the right thing?”
“Whatever will restore humanity’s lost future.”
“And how should that be done?”
The Padrone laughed. “I have no idea, my son. But, I’m not worried about that, and you should not be either. Just remember that we are fulfilling a prophecy, which we believe is divine in nature. This simply means that whatever you do — you cannot make a mistake.”
Susan Winter, thirty-one years old and unmarried, sat in front of Rockefeller Center on a white wire chair by a small table for two, nervously bouncing one leg up and down, above her head a brown eight-sided umbrella. But the man refused to show up … he simply didn’t show. She looked at her watch for the thousandth time. Okay, it was still two minutes until the actual appointment. And then that sculpture, a golden Prometheus — one of the Titans, adorning the building’s façade. Didn’t he do something forbidden, too? Defy the gods? She tried to remember what she knew about antique myths, but couldn’t call them to mind.
The few friends she had, thought her lack of self-confidence was the reason for her not having married yet, and that this also prevented her from dressing nicely and knowing how to put on make-up, failing to let her real beauty show through. On this evening she was wearing baggy jeans and a worn gray sweatshirt. Her hair hung limp on her shoulders. The waiter had treated her like a nobody, and the water she’d ordered hadn’t arrived yet. What her friends didn’t know — what no one knew — was that she was hooked on playing the lottery. She gambled away every bit of money that she could spare, and the money from the few times she won, too. She had admitted to herself a long time ago that it was more an addiction than a passion, but she simply didn’t have the strength to change. Sometimes, when she bought a dozen lottery tickets, she felt as if she was standing next to herself watching, and felt a grim gratification to let this ugly and useless being waste her life. Her grandmother, with whom she had spent her afternoons as a child, always used to say: “Gambler’s fortune, lover’s misfortune!” when she won a round of bridge with her friends. “Luck at gambling brings no luck at love.” That was a German proverb. Grandmother fled from Germany before the war. It was only later on that Susan understood why. During those afternoons when her parents were at work she used to sit beside her grandmother, combed her dolls’ hair, and dressed them up and listened to the old women talk. Luck at gambling, brings no luck at love. She turned that adage around for her own purpose, and wasn’t sure if it shouldn’t be reversed; no luck at love brings luck at gambling. With all the bad luck she had in love, her gambling would surely pay off one day. Even though she had only a vague idea what luck might feel like.
Then the man arrived, punctual to the minute. He stepped onto the terrace wearing an unremarkable black coat and found Susan Winter right away without having to look for her. He held a brown envelope in one hand, and Susan knew that it contained money, lots of money. All of a sudden what she was about to do excited her.
He sat down across from her, stiffly, as if he had sore muscles, laid the envelope down on the table, folded his hands over it, and looked at her. He had a rough, pockmarked face, like he had suffered from pox or at least very bad acne.
“Well?” he asked.
He didn’t tell her his name now, and he never mentioned a name when he called her. She always recognized him by his voice. For the past two years she had supplied him with information she stole from her firm, and he supplied her with money. In the beginning it was only little details: what cases the Dalloway Detective Agency was working on, what clients it had. Then the questions became more precise, and so did the answers she provided. Today was the first time that she actually handed over documents.
She opened her purse and pulled out a thin folder. He reached for it, and she put it in his hand. That was all it took.
Silently, he examined the files. It wasn’t much, only whatever she was able to copy without drawing anyone's attention. The folder had a photo that he was carefully studying now, a few copies of copies, and a few pages of text, which he leisurely read through. She watched him while he checked the papers, and stared at his hairy hands. She felt ugly, little, and miserable. But at the same time she fervently hoped the documents were worth the money he offered her.
“Do you have any information about his family, too?” he suddenly asked.
He reached his hand out towards her, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but he did it in an assertive, demanding way. She withdrew the second folder and gave that to him too. Again, he looked at the papers. These files were more extensive and contained almost everything the agency had gathered. Some of the information was acquired using less than legal means, but even that seemed trivial to her.
“Good,” he said, casually handing her a brown envelope as if he were handing over a pencil. Susan took it, slipped it into her purse, and felt warmth spread between her legs. He stood up in the same stiff manner and stuffed the rolled-up folders into his coat. “If there is anything else I need in the next few days, I’ll give you a call.”
She felt the money through the leather of her bag.
“If I only knew what could be so interesting about the boy.”
The way the man looked down on her made her cringe. “It is better for you not to understand. Consider that a piece of good advice.”
He left without looking back.
John sat on the bed in the hotel. It smelled of lavender. He stared at the telephone on the nightstand and couldn’t decide if he dared to use it. He was feeling restless inside, as if he was about to break apart. It all had to be a dream. What he wished for now more than anything else was to talk with someone, someone from the real world, someone who would say, “Wake up!” or something to pull him back into reality. Was he allowed to use the phone? They told him that he should sleep here. Now that they had found him after five hundred years, they didn’t want to let him out of their sight. Did that mean he wasn’t allowed to make a phone call? He had heard that it was expensive to use a hotel telephone, and he only had enough money for the subway ride back home.
They bought him a pair of pajamas, pants, a shirt, everything he really needed and everything in the right size. The floor was covered with the clothes they had bought for him, and he hadn’t even opened all the packages yet. In the meantime it had gotten dark outside, and he just kept sitting there in the gloom.
If he was supposed to spend the night there, then would they also pay for his phone call? Maybe. He stared at the flat, light-colored gadget shimmering in the dimness and shuddered. One trillion dollars, a voice inside his head repeated over and over again. One trillion dollars. What about Paul? Paul Siegel could tell him what to think about it all. Paul would help him get his thoughts sorted.
His hands shot forward as if of their own accord. One grabbed the phone and the other dialed. Holding his breath, he listened as the phone rang on the other end of the line and then heard the crackle of static as someone answered.
“Paul Siegel,” a familiar voice said. John wanted to say something, but he couldn’t think of anything, nothing, not even his own name, and then he noticed that he only got the answering machine. “I’m on a trip abroad, but I’m still glad you called. Please leave your name, number, and a message after the beep, and I will return your call. Thank you.”
It beeped. “Paul?” His voice felt odd, like after throat surgery. “Paul, it’s John. John Fontanelli. If you happen to be home then please answer, it’s urgent.” Maybe he was just coming through the door at this very moment, breathless, baggage and briefcase in hand. It was worth a try. Or maybe he was looking for the right key while he heard the answering machine inside the apartment. “Please call me back as soon as you can. I think I’m going nuts. Something totally crazy happened, and I could use your advice. Why are you on a trip now, dammit? Oh, yes, I’m at the Waldorf Astoria. I forgot the number …” A second beep ended the message. John placed the receiver back on the phone and wiped the sweat off it. He sank back into the pillow and passed out.
FOR THE NEXT several days Marvin Copeland didn’t hear anything from John. Then he received a postcard, a postcard of New York.
I really did inherit money, he wrote, and not a little. But I will tell you all about it next time. I have to go on a trip now — its business. I will get a hold of you again, promise. I just don’t know when.
See you, John.
The card had the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Museum of Modern Art on it. Written in the margin, in smaller letters and with a different pen, it said: There will be movers coming in the next few days, show them my room so they can pack my stuff.
“And the rent?” Marvin mumbled and turned the card around looking in vain for another message. “What’s with the rent?”
He did not have to worry, because the three huge men who showed up a few days later handed him an envelope with enough money to cover three months worth of rent in large denominations and a short note in John’s handwriting: I will get a hold of you as soon as I know what’s going on. Keep the room empty for me until then, ok? John.
“Come right on in,” Marvin told the muscular men.
They seemed to be a bit disappointed not having to move a piano, not even furniture, there were only a few cartons full of clothes, some books and other odds and ends.
“Where’s he going to?”
“It’s an international transport,” said the man in charge. He handed Marvin his clipboard. On the papers it said Florence, Italy.
John peered out the little window at the airport, glaring in the sunlight. Peretola Aeroporto it said on one building. It was early in the morning in Florence. They had flown through the night; on a ten or eleven-hour flight. He got mixed-up with the different time zones. Of course he flew first class. Two rows ahead he saw a face that looked familiar. It was a small shock when he realized that he was looking at a movie star: a genuine Hollywood star, an Oscar winner even, accompanied by his wife and manager. He asked Eduardo in a hushed tone if it were okay to go up to the man and ask for an autograph.
“Why not?” Eduardo answered and added dryly, “Or you could wait two weeks, then he’ll come to you and ask for an autograph!”
John did not approach the movie star.
Despite the generous size of the seats and the ample legroom, John wasn’t able to sleep much on the flight and didn’t feel rested when it landed. The bright light hurt his eyes. He blinked when he looked toward the hills to a thin line of Italian stone pine trees. He’d never been to Italy before. All that he knew about this country was what his parents had told him.
He thought back to the previous day. His parents were very surprised when he appeared in a black Lincoln. He still had to smile remembering the looks on their faces. He didn’t tell them that much, and they didn’t quite understand what was going on with the inheritance. “How can you inherit something when we’re still alive, son?” his father must have asked at least five times. They did understand that he was now a wealthy man. But he didn’t tell them just how wealthy he really was since it was a short visit, and they would have had a tough time grasping the enormity of a trillion dollars. After all, he still hadn’t fully grasped it himself.
On their way back from Bridgewater, they stopped by Fifth Avenue, right in front of the most luxurious stores. Eduardo, who was like a tour guide showing John the wonderful world of wealth, handed over a gold credit card with John’s name on it, and then they entered the store to get a tailored suit.
It was quiet inside and it smelled of cloth, fine leather, and expensive perfume. The display cases, bags, and coat hangers seemed as old as America. John would not have been surprised if someone had told him that the dark wood in the store was made from the planks of the Mayflower.
A gray-haired man with a slight limp greeted them. With a quick professional glance he measured up Eduardo from head to toe, examining his perfectly fitting, but somewhat too modern tailor-made suit, and then he looked at John, who was still dressed in jeans, a worn shirt, and a jacket that was hardly an improvement. Without changing the expression on his face he deduced John was the man in need of a suit.
“How much should the new suit for the young man cost?” the tailor asked.
“Whatever is necessary,” Eduardo answered.
And then they got started. John tried on different suits while Eduardo decided, made suggestions, and gave orders to the employees.
At first, John was against being dressed-up in new suits, shirts, and ties. It was all too uncomfortable, would get dirty too easily, and he wouldn’t feel like himself in them.
“You can easily afford the best of the best,” Eduardo told him. “And I doubt that they’re uncomfortable, otherwise rich people wouldn’t wear them.”
“Doubtless, you will be able to afford to wear whatever you want,” Eduardo’s father, Gregorio, agreed awkwardly. “But we think it’s important to have a certain type of wardrobe for certain occasions.”
“You are a very wealthy man,” Gregorio’s brother Alberto said with a wink of an eye. “Surely, you want to feel like one.”
Grandfather Cristoforo smiled and said, “Try them on and then see how you feel in them.”
And, indeed, as John stood before a mirror dressed in his first suit, he was quite impressed. My goodness, what a difference! He had felt like a pile of shit when he entered the store, like a lost homeless man, like a born loser. A voice inside his head had told him to run — that he had no business in a place like this amidst such wealth and opulence. And now, dressed in a classic, dark-blue, double-breasted suit, a snow-white shirt, a tie with thin stripes, a pair of shiny black shoes that were so hard and heavy each step was clearly audible, he not only looked like he belonged in this environment, he even seemed to emit a special aura all of his own as he looked into the mirror. All of a sudden he was a winner, a very important person, yes, a VIP! John looked at the miserable pile of clothes that he used to call his own and he knew that he would never wear them again. To wear a suit like the one he had on seemed almost magical. He felt like a demigod, and the feeling almost made his head spin. It was a feeling he could get addicted to. So they bought, and bought, and bought, running up a tab of twenty-six thousand dollars.
“My God, Mr. Vacchi,” John whispered to Eduardo and felt how pale he got. “Twenty-six thousand dollars!”
Eduardo just raised a brow. “So what?”
“That’s a lot of money for a few suits,” John hissed, feeling miserable.
“It took us almost two hours to choose these suits. In case it comforts you, your fortune grew by almost nine million dollars since we walked in the door.”
John simply didn’t know what to say, except: “Nine million? In two hours?”
“I could do the math for you, if you’d like.”
“We could’ve bought the whole store.”
John looked at the bill again, and this time the sum seemed ridiculous. He went to the cash register and laid the bill down along with his new credit card. The gray-haired man took them and went to the back behind a curtain, and when he reappeared it was as if he had been given a shot of adrenaline and was ready to help his new customer in any way he could. The shop owner’s change in demeanor left John wondering what the man had discovered just by calling to check on the card.
John decided to keep one of the suits on. Of course it was no problem to dispose of his old clothes, the gray-haired man told him. He did actually say “dispose.” As if John’s old outfit was nothing more than hazardous waste. John could imagine the man waiting until after they left, then lifting his clothes with large metal tongs and carrying them downstairs to the incinerator with a disgusted expression on his face.
Before leaving the store, Eduardo made arrangements to have the rest of the wardrobe delivered to the moving company that would transport John’s other belongings to Florence.
Later on, at JFK Airport, John noticed how different he felt, and how differently he was treated wearing an expensive suit. Security personnel spoke politely to him, and didn’t push him around. Customs personnel believed him when he said he had no goods to declare. The other passengers looked at him respectfully, and seemed to wonder who he was — if they should recognize him from a celebrity magazine.
“Clothes make the man,” Eduardo told him after John mentioned his observations.
“It’s as simple as that?” John wondered.
“But, anyone could do this! Buy a really nice suit. Okay, a thousand dollars is a lot of money, but if you consider what people spend on cars …”
Eduardo only smiled.
A silver Rolls Royce stood waiting for them in the parking lot in front of the airport. It was a stretched version and shined to a glossy finish that seemed to leave everyone who saw it awe-struck.
A white-haired chauffer stood by the car, slightly stooped, looking at them with an aristocratic expression. His uniform reminded John of old movies, but the man looked proud. When John and the four lawyers came out of the terminal, pushing the baggage cart in front of them, the driver took off his cap, clamped it under his left arm, and opened the rear door with his right. It didn’t surprise John at all that the car was a Rolls Royce. What other choice was there? He was surprised that he was not surprised!
“So,” Eduardo said lightly, “now people will have something to be surprised by.”
“What do you mean?” John said.
“Because, we ourselves must put the baggage into the trunk. Benito has back problems, a spinal disc and a few other things with Latin names that have to do with the back, and he can’t lift anything heavier than car keys.”
And so John and the three younger Vacchis stowed their bags in the spacious trunk. Meanwhile, the Padrone and the chauffer were talking in Italian; so quickly and in such a strong dialect that John understood next to nothing. And indeed, the people who saw them were surprised, and a couple made some comments. Benito really wasn’t the youngest of men anymore. Eduardo’s grandfather almost seemed young and spry in comparison. Whatever it was that they were talking about, they seemed to get along famously.
“Actually, Benito should have retired years ago, and in effect he did,” Alberto explained when he saw John looking at the chauffer and guessed his thoughts. “But he has worked as our chauffer his entire life. He would wither away if he weren’t allowed to drive the Rolls anymore, and that’s why he’s driving it, for as long as he wants.”
After the baggage was loaded up, everyone got in the car and Benito drove away. But before long they were stuck in a traffic jam, just like everyone else.
“We’re going to go out to our country estate,” Cristoforo explained, looking at John from the side. “Naturally, you are our guest until all the required formalities have been addressed and you have chosen your new residence.”
John, irritated by the rude driving habits of the other drivers and the honking and the shaking of fists, looked at the Padrone. “What sort of formalities are we talking about, exactly?”
“The fortune must be officially signed over to you. What we must avoid is inheritance tax, but don’t worry, we will avoid it.”
“How much would that be?”
“Very much. Half.”
Extraordinarily, John felt a hot anger rise up from his stomach when he heard this; a feeling that he interpreted as aggression. Crazy, he thought. Two days ago he had been wishing that the inheritance would have been a more manageable four million dollars, instead of the colossal sum it had turned out to be. Now his anger burned white-hot merely at the thought of having to give half of a trillion away to some tax authority. It was almost as if he had earned every dollar with his own sweat and hard labor. “How do you plan to do that?” he asked.
This was Gregorio’s area of expertise. “We have a sort of gentleman’s agreement with the Italian minister of finance. He is satisfied to collect a symbolic few million dollars and you promise him to let the Italian government tax your capital income for at least one year. This will bring twenty billion dollars into his coffers, which he can certainly use at the moment.”
“Every finance minister could, couldn’t they?”
“Yes,” the lawyer said. “But Italy wants to join the European monetary union that is to begin in 1999, and at the moment it is questionable if the country can fulfill the financial prerequisites. Your twenty billion dollars could tip the scales. This is why the minister is, let’s say, very willing to make compromises.”
John nodded, but with a queasy feeling in his stomach. He still had to get used to these kinds of deals and the idea that whatever he did or said would be significant. What was even more momentous was that it would have massive consequences for many other people’s lives. It was still very difficult for him to come to terms with the power of money.
John’s attention was drawn to one of the stores along the street, not unusual since they had barely been moving faster than a pedestrian. “You say that all this money really is mine,” he said to Gregorio. “Is that the case at this very moment?”
“I could spend it on whatever I want?”
“Any time.” He turned to his son. “Eduardo, you did give him his credit card?” Eduardo nodded.
“Okay,” said John. “Please, let me out here.”
In his previous life John had once read an article in which the author said that driving a Ferrari was better than sex.
He was right.
Since they left the autostrada, which went past towns with colorful sounding names like Prato, Pistoria or Montecatini, the roadways were much narrower and wound their way in tight curves around dry hills. In some places stones had been piled up along the fields and time and again they raced past ancient abandoned looking farmsteads. When they drove through a village, bedraggled-looking children would gather and shout and wave to them, and the men, standing by the front doors or working on their tractors, would also wave.
“Take a right up by the next intersection, that’s a shortcut,” Eduardo hollered.
“And what if I go straight ahead?”
“That takes twenty minutes longer.”
“Then we’ll go straight ahead,” John said as he stepped on the accelerator. He enjoyed being pressed against the hard leather seats as the red Ferrari roared down the road, accelerating through the empty intersection like an arrow. Better than sex, really. John had lost track of how many times he’d imagined what it would feel like to drive a Ferrari, but it was far better than he could have ever guessed. Surrounded by sleek, deep-red sheet metal, and the powerful motor in back — you feel the thundering engine, like your own heartbeat, and the car becomes one with your body. You race through the countryside, unstoppable, fast, powerful, chasing along the roadways and round curves, the blood in your veins boiling. You feel the world is your playground, your personal racetrack. He felt awesome, like a movie star — he was a king!
“Will this disqualify me now in your eyes?” John asked as he shot across a bridge that went over an almost dry creek.
“Well,” John said with a tight grip on the wheel and a smirk on his lips, “you find the heir to the Fontanelli fortune, the fulfiller of the prophecy, the one who had been chosen for a half millennium to restore humanity’s future — and the first thing he does is totally useless: buying an extremely expensive sports car.”
Eduardo laughed. “Then you don’t know my grandfather. He took you into his heart. That’s forever. You can do whatever you want.”
John looked surprised. “Oh?” That touched him somehow.
“Besides,” Eduardo continued, “you fit right into a theory that he developed.”
“He had been following the fate of various people who came suddenly and unexpectedly into wealth. You know, like you might’ve read in some newspaper story or other. He says that those who start to save it soon lose it. But, those who fulfill crazy dreams right away learn how to handle the money later on.”
“So, I guess there’s still hope for me.”
He just had to do it — when he saw the showroom window with the red cars inside, and the ridiculous looking mannequins and the logo with the black horse on a yellow shield. He felt something like hunger; he had to have such a car, he had to drive it. Right there and right at that moment.
Things like that always looked so easy in the movies, but on this side of the silver screen a car had to be registered, and had to be insured. You had to go through a thousand different steps in diverse government departments before you could legally drive a car out of the showroom for good.
Eduardo was by his side to help him with all the initial formalities. The man in the store simply nodded; everything could be taken care of later. John would be able to drive the vehicle right away. All he had to do was pull out his credit card and sign the receipt for an unbelievably large sum of lira, which John did without even trying to figure out how many dollars it was. And then came the magic moment; the owner of the dealership, a very well-dressed man with oily, shiny hair, handed the keys over to John. He and Eduardo climbed into the new Ferrari, the large store window was opened, and then John drove out into the street filled with honking cars.
Actually, John had never been a fan of Ferraris. He always thought how ridiculous it was when Tom Selleck drove a Ferrari around in the TV show Magnum P.I. A car like that was too expensive and impractical in his eyes. Naturally, he had dreamed of owning a nice car as a symbol of having made it in the world, just like any red-blooded American, but his dreams were set on a Cadillac or Corvette, not a Ferrari.
As he looked back to the moment when he gazed out the window of the Rolls Royce and saw the Ferrari dealership, it was more like a test to see how much truth there was to all those words the Vacchis had told him. That’s what made him want to buy one immediately — to see if he, supposedly the richest man of all time, could buy a wildly expensive sports car on nothing more than a whim.
And behold! He could.
“Your grandfather really believes in the prophecy, doesn’t he?” John asked.
Eduardo nodded. “Yes, he does.”
“Hmm.” A pause followed, and then he answered: “Not in the same way as grandfather does.”
“What do you believe?”
“I think that my family accomplished something very unique by keeping this fortune intact for such a long period of time. I also believe that it doesn’t belong to us, but to the rightful Fontanelli heir.”
“Didn’t you ever think about just keeping it? I mean, who else knows about this money?”
“No one. I know it sounds crazy, but this is how I was raised. You might not be able to visualize this. I grew up in an atmosphere of patience and planning and working and preparing … all focuses on this one very particular date, a date that had been fixed five hundred years ago. The Vacchis' commitment was to care for the fortune, to nurture it and to make it grow up until the day it would be handed over to the rightful heir. Then, as soon as the heir had full control of the money, we would be free. Then our duty would be done.”
John tried to imagine such a life; one where people were tied to a pledge their ancestors made centuries ago, and he shuddered at the thought; it felt so unnatural to him. “Is that what you feel … commitment? Isn’t that a heavy burden?”
“It is not a heavy burden. It was simply our task and only when it is fulfilled are we free to concentrate on other things.” Eduardo shrugged his shoulders. “It may seem odd to you, but you must realize; those things that my grandfather told you about two days ago were stories I have known since I was a child. Fontanelli’s dream was told to me while other kids were told Christmas stories. I know it by heart. Each year the twenty-third of April was like a holiday for us, and we told each other, ‘Now there are only so-and-so many years left.’ I know the sum of Fontanelli’s fortune at any major moment in history. We watched the Fontanelli family down through all those years. We kept track of every wedding and every birth. We knew who held what job and who lived in what city. But, admittedly, we had let it slide a bit during the past years. The closer the final day got, the more confident we were that your cousin Lorenzo would inherit the money.”
John went out on a limb. “Are you disappointed that it was me in the end?”
“You can’t ask me that. I was in the university until last fall and never met him. To observe your family was the others’ job. We need to take a right here.”
John turned and up a small hill. He had to slow down because the road was narrow and winding.
“Who were the other possibilities?”
“You were number two. Number three would’ve been your distant cousin. He is a dental technician in Livorno. He’s thirty-one years old, married but without children, which, by the way, is a frequent occurrence in the Fontanelli family.”
“He will be disappointed.”
“He doesn’t know.”
Now the road offered better visibility. John saw that it led to a village. At bit off to the wayside — the view of the Mediterranean must be grand from up there — stood a large estate, and John sensed that must be the Vacchi home.
“What does your grandfather think about me?”
“That you are the heir Giacomo Fontanelli saw in his dream in the year 1495. And that with your fortune you will accomplish great things for humanity, something that will re-open the door to the future.”
“Quite ambitious expectations, aren’t they?”
“To be honest, I think all of this is only mystical humbug.” Eduardo laughed loudly.
They approached the village. John saw that the road on the other side, the one Eduardo wanted to take earlier, would have been wider.
“But, in the Vacchi family belief comes with age, according to a family proverb,” Eduardo added. “Both my father and my uncle are at a stage in their lives at which, as true Vacchis at least believe, they think that something useful must be done with the money, and they put in great efforts to think about what this might be. My grandfather doesn’t waste any time with such thoughts. You are the rightful heir, and the whole thing is a divine revelation … and if you buy a Ferrari, then it was part of God’s plan, e basta!”
Eduardo gave John instructions to help him find his way through the village with snappy finger gestures that John had quickly learned to “read.” The place looked very peaceful. They got to the estate, drove through a broad, wide open, wrought iron gateway and up to a spacious graveled driveway. The Rolls was already parked in the shade of large old trees. John parked the Ferrari next to it. It was odd not feeling the vibration of the Ferrari’s engine or hearing its sound any more.
“So, what do you think?” he wanted to know.
Eduardo grinned. “John, I think that you have a trillion dollars and that you are the king of the world. If you don’t enjoy that, then you are nuts.”
THE ENTIRE PROPERTY was steeped in history. The treetops swayed in the wind coming in from the sea and made shadows dance upon the stoic old stucco walls laced with countless, thin cracks. They had taken only a few crunchy steps on the gravel when the front door swung open. A well-nourished woman in her mid-fifties, who could’ve easily made commercials for spaghetti, came out and greeted them with a burst of rapid-fire Italian.
“You must speak slower, Giovanna,” Eduardo called to her in Italian. “Otherwise Signor Fontanelli won’t understand you.” Turning to John, he said in English, “That’s Giovanna, the presiding angel of the house. She will take care of you, but she does not speak English.”
“At least I understood what you told her,” John said with a grin. “We’ll get along.” John’s father had always wanted his kids to at least understand the fundamentals of their family tongue, but since mainly English was spoken at home, John had had little opportunity to practice. Much of what he had forgotten, however, was slowly being coming back to him.
They went inside the house and entered a cool, dim hallway. An impressive staircase led up to a gallery. Dim hallways stretched off to the left and right, and a heavy chandelier hung from the ceiling high above. Their steps echoed on the terracotta floors. Eduardo once again told Giovanna to speak slowly and concisely to John, which won him only a sour look. He told John “See you later,” and left.
John followed the formidable maid up the stairs and through a light-flooded hallway until they came to a large room she told him was his. It was as big as a living room and had glass doors that opened to a broad balcony, which offered a wonderful view of the Mediterranean Sea over its weathered sandstone balustrade.
“Here is your bathroom,” she said, but John was only interested looking at the shimmering sea. If he needed something, anything, she told him, all he had to do was to dial fifteen.
“What?” John said automatically in Italian and turned around. She stood beside the bed and held the phone in her hand. It was a modern cordless one, and the base stood on the nightstand.
“Fifteen,” Giovanna said again, “if you need something.”
“Yes.” John nodded and took the phone from her hand.
“And if I need to make a call? Outside the house?” he couldn’t remember the Italian word for operator.
“Dial zero,” she told him, being as patient as a mother with a child. John asked himself if she had kids. Then he looked at the phone. It had a small clear plastic tab with a tag behind it. It was his phone number: twenty-three.
“Thank you,” he said.
As soon as she left, he realized he was tired. It had to be jet lag. He had barely slept a wink during the flight and had no impression of what time it could be. He had felt mixed-up, wired, and exhausted all at once. The bed looked good: wide and freshly made. The drive in the Ferrari had given him a jolt of adrenaline, like strong coffee. He was wide awake and ecstatic as he raced through the landscape, but that was keeping him from being able to fall asleep now, even though he felt like it. He knew he wouldn’t sleep a wink. But he could lie down on the bed and rest just a little bit. That wouldn’t be a bad idea.
He woke up with a start and looked around bewildered, and then slowly began to grasp where he was and what had happened. It was still bright out, or was it bright again? But the quality of the light had changed. He ran his fingers through his hair, and then shook the sleepiness out of his head. From one second to the next, he had fallen asleep in his clothes.
Laboriously, he stood up. Where was the bathroom? Who cares? As if drawn by a magnet he went to the balcony doors and stepped outside. The fresh air, smelling of salt and endless distance, cleared his head. The sun hung low over the horizon shining golden-red before him. That must be west, so it must be late afternoon or early evening. He must’ve slept at least five hours.
Now he took note of the layout of the Vacchi estate. There was the main building, which had two smaller wings reaching toward the sea and attached at right angles from the main structure and capped off with a very large terraces. One of the wings housed his room. Blue awnings were stretched out from the opposite terrace, and a large table was being set underneath them. Wild grapevines grew over the balustrade, upon which large pots stood with red, blue and violet flowers. Someone waved to him, calling him over. “Sunset!” he understood and he recognized Alberto Vacchi. The other man sitting there might be his brother Gregorio, and there was also a woman whom he had not met yet. He saw Giovanna and a young girl, dressed in a formal maid’s uniform. They were placing glasses and plates upon the table.
John waved back, but remained standing where he was to enjoy the sight of the sea, sparkling in the setting sun like the picture on a kitschy postcard. A large snow-white yacht plowed through the water, and John felt a bit jealous, like most people probably would who were standing on shore looking at such a beautiful ship. Yachts seem to be built for just such purposes, to bring out emotions.
Then he remembered that he was rich, unbelievably rich. He could buy a much bigger yacht if he wanted. He could buy a dozen yachts. While he was at it, he could buy a private 747, even a fleet of them. And even that would scarcely hinder his monstrous fortune from continuing to grow. With every breath you take, Eduardo said, you have four thousand dollars more. That means it grew faster than he could count, even if he were handed thousand dollar bills. He didn't know why, but thoughts like that made his knees shake. Suddenly, it all seemed too much for him and he started to feel anxious. He feared it would overwhelm him and crush him like an avalanche. How else could he be expected to feel, going from being a poor sucker one day to filthy rich the next?
He turned around to face the house and walked to the open door. He went inside and sank down onto the carpeted floor — just lie here for a while, he thought. That’s how he stayed until the dark fog had lifted from his eyes. He hoped no one would see him like this.
After a while he slowly sat up and waited to collect himself. Then he finally stood up, found the bathroom and put his face under the faucet and turned on the water. When he came back out the air smelled like something delicious was being fried. The smell seemed to be coming into his room from the other terrace. He wanted to take a shower and change his clothes, but he didn’t know if his clothes had arrived or where they would be, and he didn’t want to bother anyone. Besides, the smell of food had woven its spell on him, and so he decided that the shower could wait.
He found his way to the other terrace, which was not that difficult as the house was built symmetrically. The room on this side of the complex, which was located in the same place as his, only on the opposite terrace, turned out to be a magnificent salon. When he stepped out onto the terrace he was greeted amicably.
“Those transatlantic flights sure do a number,” Alberto said waving John over to him to an unoccupied chair, “Especially those going east. The best medicine is sleep. Sleep and good food. Giovanna, a plate for our guest of honor, please.”
They sat at a long wooden table, which looked like it had been built for knights centuries ago. The lawyers sat at one side of the table and a number of other guests at the other. Only the Padrone wasn’t there. Of the other guests, John knew only Benito and Giovanna, who was sitting beside him and gesturing wildly as she spoke to him. Large glass bowls stood in the middle of the table with bright, colorful salads, and baskets with freshly baked white bread, and cast iron pots of fried fish.
The young maid hurried over to bring John a plate after Giovanna gestured to her to do so. He was also given silverware and an engraved crystal glass.
Alberto took charge introducing the guests to each other. The woman that John had seen from his balcony was Alvina, and she was Gregorio’s wife, so Eduardo’s mother. Her English was good, though she spoke with a strong accent. She told John that she was a teacher in the village school. Then Alberto mentioned a list of other names, which John could hardly remember, but he did look at all their faces.
The stocky man with thinning hair, who sat wide-legged on his chair listening to Giovanna and Benito, was the gardener. The two young guys sitting near them, sawing at their fish, had been there cleaning the indoor swimming pool in the basement of the house that afternoon, which they did once a month to earn a little bit of extra cash. And the toothless old man, who sat smiling with an alcohol-induced buzz, holding onto his wine glass, was one of the local farmers from whom the Vacchis got their fresh fruits and vegetables.
“This is a family tradition, you could say,” Alberto explained. “A large outdoor dinner and whoever happens to be here is invited to join us. This way we find out the latest gossip from the village. John, you must be hungry, please, go ahead and help yourself.”
John looked at the bowls and generously filled his plate. The lawyer poured some deep-red, ruby-colored wine into John’s glass from a dark bottle.
“Your father won’t be joining us?” John asked casually and was a bit startled when Alberto’s face turned a smidgen serious.
“He’s asleep. Such long journeys exhaust him more than he admits.” He was quiet for a while, and then added: “His health is not what it once was, but he still wanted to join us on the long trip. That’s how he is.”
John nodded. “I understand.”
“How do you like your room?” Gregorio asked.
John, who had only just managed to shove the first piece of fish into his mouth, nodded as he hurried to swallow. “Good. It’s really nice. Great view.”
“Let him eat first, Gregorio,” his wife said and smiled to John. “It’s the nicest room in the whole house, and it’s been waiting for you for a long time.”
“Ah,” John said, and didn’t know what else to say. And because he couldn’t think of anything to say, he hurried to stuff some salad into his mouth, and while he chewed he listened to the others talking.
Alberto didn’t seem to be married, and for the first time John noticed that he did not wear a wedding ring. He did not really look like someone who was married. Eduardo poked around in his salad and seemed to be elsewhere with his thoughts. Alvina and Alberto were talking about one of her former pupils, who, as far as John could follow, moved to Florence, started a software business, and had recently won a major contract.
The gardener stood up, went over to the Vacchis, thanked them for the meal, and told them that he had to get back to work. He explained that he had taken five bushes out of the ground earlier and they must be put back in, otherwise they’d dry out by tomorrow.
John felt how his tension gradually evaporated. He had not been aware of how uneasy he had been. It was calming to sit here, stripping the white meat from the fishbone and dunking the bread into the delicious sauce, which was oily and saturated with garlic, while all around him life went on as usual. There was something in this blissful atmosphere that somehow made him feel he would not enjoy many such moments of peace in the future. This was the lull before the storm.
And it would be a one trillion dollar storm.
It took John a long time to wake up properly the next morning. It was bright with an unusual light, and he was on unusually nice smelling sheets, on a mattress that suited him, not too hard or too soft. And then he remembered everything again; the inheritance, the flight, the Ferrari, and he did drink quite a bit of wine last night, too.
But he didn’t have a hangover. He got up, placed his feet on the very soft carpet, and looked around the large room, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. The balcony doors were open. He could hear the surf, and he could almost imagine smelling the sea. He looked at the furniture, which was not really to his taste; too dainty, too much glass and too many knickknacks, although they did look solid and he suspected that they were expensive.
He ran the fingers of both hands through his hair, yawned endlessly and tried to stretch. He remembered everything, but only like a dream. Lord knows how he got here, but it all seemed real enough. Here he was, dressed in silk pajamas, and although a little worse for the wear from last night’s drinking, it was definitely no dream.
And now? A cup of coffee would be good. A big cup of coffee, hot and strong, but first he wanted to shower. And even a trillionaire had to go to the bathroom.
The table on the terrace was already set for breakfast. It seemed the Vacchi family-life revolved around this table. Someone had changed the blue awning’s position so that it offered shade from the morning sun, and also a view of the sea.
This time only the Padrone sat at the table. He called John over with a weak wave of one hand and invited him to sit down next to him. “What would you like for breakfast? We here in Italy seldom take more than a cup of cappuccino, but Giovanna is in the kitchen and ready to fulfill whatever wishes you may have. We even have several different types of American cereals, if I remember correctly.”
“A coffee would be a good start,” John said.
She seemed to have heard him, because she appeared with a large cup of cappuccino. She looked like she was suffering from a bit from a hangover.
“Everyone else is still asleep,” the old man continued. “No wonder; a flight over the Atlantic, a long car ride, and then drinking lots of alcohol to finish it off. My sons aren’t that young anymore, but they don’t want to admit it. I bet Alberto told you all sorts of horror stories about my health, right? I stayed away from the dinner table on purpose. You know, I’ve studied many biographies from people who got very old, and learned that reaching a great age has a lot to do with the way you sleep. It’s not the only reason, but an important one. You can grow to be very old even without being in perfect physical condition if you make sure you get enough sleep. Even so, it’s about time Eduardo showed up; after all, he’s your age.”
John sipped his coffee and the bitter, hot elixir that entered his mouth from beneath the light-brown creamy cover and ran soothingly down his throat. Then he took a small pastry from a chrome-wire basket. “As far as I can remember, when I went to bed he went to the basement to get more wine.”
Cristoforo laughed and shook his head. “Then we’ll be alone this morning, I guess.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“That depends on what we make of it. Do you have any plans yet?”
John bit into the pastry. It tasted slightly salty, but good. He shook his head while he chewed.
“That would’ve surprised me,” said the old Vacchi. “This whole thing must be like a dream for you. We yanked you out of your environment, dragged you halfway around the world, and hide you here. It must be quite an imposition.”
Cristoforo Vacchi stared at John with earnest and benevolent eyes. “How do you feel, John?”
John avoided his look and lifted the cup. “Good, actually. Why?”
“Do you feel wealthy?”
“Wealthy?” John took a deep breath and grimaced. “Not really. Okay, I bought a Ferrari yesterday, at least I think so. Wealthy? No. More like being on vacation — as if my Italian relatives showed up and invited me on a surprise trip to Europe.”
“Would you like to see Europe?”
“I’ve never thought about that before. I think so.”
“For now, I would advise you against it,” said Cristoforo Vacchi. “But sometime in the future it is something you can do, if you want. Having money so suddenly is a learning process. You must learn to handle money properly, even with lots of money. There is nothing material that you can’t buy, but there are other things that you will need to be aware of. The life you had before never prepared you for this, at least not obviously, so you have a lot to catch up on.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by ‘not obviously’?”
The Padrone looked up at the awnings; his eyes followed the contours and then he re-adjusted his chair to remain in the shade. “The sun is not the same as it was during my youth. I don’t think that it’s due to my age. Back then no one complained about the sun. I really think that it is the hole in the ozone layer. It changed the sun. Of course, I mean the light from it that reaches us.” He nodded vaguely. “The man who invented the spray can never intended that to happen, and maybe he is not the only one at fault. Most of the time there are usually many causes that, taken together, have untold effects, and they’re all associated. It’s a web that is hard to unravel. Now do you understand what I meant by ’not obviously’?”
John thought for a moment, then nodded, even though he had no real idea what the old man was trying to say. “Yes.”
“I believe the way you grew up has a hidden meaning, and also that you, well, let’s just say that from a certain age you slipped out of our sight.” He shook his head and seemed to be laughing to himself. “Five hundred years to prepare and then we cock it up. Can you imagine? After Lorenzo’s death we had nothing on you except your name and a few files at least ten years old.” He tittered to himself again, took a pastry and dunked it into his coffee before biting into it. “We didn’t even know where you lived.”
John forced a smile. “Would Lorenzo have been a more suitable heir?” he asked, involuntarily holding his breath.
The Padrone shook his head. “He would indeed have been suitable. He was intelligent, even highly intelligent. He won several prizes in school for math. He was fascinating to us all, I admit. He would have been suitable — on the face of things. But I already told you that I mistrust the obvious.”
“I never won any math prizes,” John said. “I have problems doing the math for normal interest rates. And I’m about as average in intelligence as anyone can be.”
Cristoforo looked at him. “But Lorenzo is dead and you are alive.”
“Maybe that was a mistake.”
“It was God’s will,” he said. “Do you think God makes mistakes?”
John thought a moment, then said, “I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes I think yes.”
The old man lifted his cup to his lips, drank, and thoughtfully, as if he didn’t really hear what John had said. “You are still young,” he said suddenly. “You are far too young to recognize this world in all its complexity, John. But don’t worry. Believe me, you are the rightful heir.”
“So why don’t I feel like it?”
“Because you have to learn. To a certain extent you are still in shock. Your entire life has fundamentally changed, and you must first learn to handle this new life. That is perfectly normal. There is much for you to learn, much to understand, much to experience until then. I would like to,” Cristoforo sipped on his cappuccino, “go to Florence with you later on. I want to show you around, but above all I want to show you the archives. They are held in the offices of our firm, where they have been for five hundred years. Would you like that?”
He said five hundred years as if it was the most normal thing in the world and as if he had lived through all of them. As if he belonged to a different race, a race of immortal lawyers. “Sounds interesting.”
“Here in the cellar of the house we have microfiche copies of all the documents,” Cristoforo told him, “but I would like to show you the originals, so that you can get a feeling for the history, for the length of time involved.” He smirked. “Of course, that’s only if I can get Benito to wake up.”
“It’s a long trip to get to work,” John commented as they passed Lucca and a street sign that said seventy-eight kilometers to Firenze.
“Well, we don’t have to work often for this to be much trouble.” The Padrone smiled. “Besides, even Dante described the Florentines as greedy, envious, and arrogant people. It is good to keep a bit of distance from this city.”
“Why don’t you just stay away from the city in general?”
Cristoforo made a vague gesture. “Tradition, I guess. Besides, it looks good on our business cards when we’re traveling abroad.”
John nodded and glanced out the window. “That’s reason enough, I suppose.”
They didn’t speak much during the drive. John was entranced by the views of the Tuscan hills with their vineyards, orchards and whitewashed villas. The old man just stared into the middle distance, lost in thought.
As they came into the city proper, the old man told Benito to drop them off at Piazza San Lorenzo. “It isn’t far to the office from there, and I can show you some tourist attractions along the way. Not the usual ones, though, — the Piazza della Signoria, Uffizi, Duomo, Palazzo Pitti, Ponte Vecchio. It’s not a good idea to do those on a Saturday.”
John nodded. Right, today was Saturday. His sense of time was still mixed up.
The car wound its torturous way through endless traffic jams, past colossal medieval facades before it finally stopped in front of a high, fortified basilica made of brick. Cristoforo told Benito to pick them up at the office at two thirty, and then he and John got out. The Rolls Royce drove away, the crowds in the street gawping at it.
The streets of Florence were busy. The whole area in front of the church of San Lorenzo was filled with brightly colored sales stands. Countless tourists ambled among them, a myriad of languages mixed up with the rattle of mopeds driving past. John followed Cristoforo, who obviously felt very much at home here. They walked up to a monument that stood in the middle of the piazza, surrounded by a thin, black wrought iron fence; it dominated the whole area. It was a larger-than-life sized statue, on a richly decorated base.
“That is the founder of the Medici dynasty, Giovanni di Averardo,” the Padrone explained. He had to talk very loud to be heard above all the noise. “He lived during the fourteenth century, and his son, Cosimo, was the first Medici to rule Florence, mainly due to his wealth. The Medici possessed the largest bank in Europe back then.”
John looked at the figure, sitting there in deep thought, noticing the life-like facial features. The finer details of the reliefs were hidden beneath a black patina of exhaust gasses and dust, which made it look like centuries old filth, but which had probably accumulated over just six months. “Aha,” he said.
“That was in 1434, if I remember correctly. At any rate, he died in 1464, and his son, Piero, who was called Piero the Gouty, died five years later from the disease that gave him the nickname. And that’s how his son, Lorenzo, came to power. He was twenty years old at the time. Yet, despite his age, he ruled the city with such skill that he was called Il Magnifico, the magnificent.”
“I see.” Another Lorenzo. He had always hated such lessons in school, but he guessed there would be no way of avoiding this one.
“In the year 1480 your ancestor Giacomo Fontanelli was born,” the old man continued, looking at the statue. As he spoke, John observed him from the side and realized that these historical events were to him as much part of his life as his own wedding. “Lorenzo had just survived a conspiracy, which killed his brother. He used this as an opportunity to do away with his enemies. And thus Giacomo grew up in a time when Florence was at the height of its prosperity — during the reign of Lorenzo the magnificent.” Cristoforo pointed at the domes high above on the church across the plaza. “Over there, by the way, is where all the members of the Medici have their final resting places. Shall we go have a look?”
“Sure,” John nodded, tired from the heat, the dust, the noise, and all these history lessons. To imagine all this happened even before Columbus discovered America. He’d rather not bother.
They walked in a semi-circle to circumvent the densely packed center of the piazza. “That is the Canto dei Nelli,” Cristoforo told him along the way, which meant nothing to John. They finally reached the entrance to the Medici Chapel and paid a ridiculously small entrance fee, before they were allowed to escape the heated tumult of the streets and enter the cool and quiet crypt.
A crowd of tourists ambled about within with cameras clicking or getting ready to do so. In contrast, he and Cristoforo were quiet and pious and studied the inscriptions of the various Medici family members.
Cristoforo pointed to the last pillar, the one to the right. “The last Medici was buried over there, Anna Maria Ludovica. Here it says, ‘died 1743.’ The Medici ceased to exist after her demise.” They stood for a while in silence, absorbed the quietness, the coolness, and the musty smells of dead centuries. “Let us go into the vestry,” Cristoforo said finally, and added mysteriously, “I think you will like it.”
They crossed the dim crypt and entered a short corridor, which they followed until they reached a large room that surpassed in its splendor anything John had ever seen. Pillars and pedestals of white and pastel marble towered above his head, framing niches of darker marble, with black horizontal bands that created a sense of grandeur and space. John stared up into the great vault of the dome spanning the expanse above like the heavens. It took his breath away. And yet all this opulence was only the background for a row of marble statues that seemed so life-like that they looked as if they would move at any moment.
“My God,” he heard himself mumble. He had no idea that such things existed.
“Isn’t this wonderful?”
John only nodded. He was suddenly embarrassed to think he had once considered himself an artist. “Who did all this?” he asked after a while.
“Michelangelo,” Cristoforo told him. “This was his first stab at architecture.”
“Michelangelo.” This name said something to him, something that went way back, but he couldn’t say what it was.
The Padrone pointed to a sculpture in front of them of a man in a thoughtful pose. “This figure is called Pensieroso ‘the Thinker,’” he explained. “It is supposed to be Lorenzo the younger, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose tomb was never finished.” He pointed to a niche beside the entrance. “Lorenzo died in 1492, and his son, Piero, fled when French troops led by Charles VIII invaded Italy and then Florence two years later. Of Giacomo Fontanelli we know only that he and his mother left Florence to seek shelter in a monastery which had previously offered them sanctuary.”
John stared at the sculpture. He could almost see it breathing; he blinked a few times to dispel the illusion. He was having difficulty following what the Padrone was saying. “Does the monastery still exist?”
“As ruins, yes. It was abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century, used as an arms depot during World War Two and destroyed in an air raid.”
John ambled on through the sacristy noticing the way the light played on the surfaces of the statues making them seem almost alive. “The Medici were wealthy, but the dynasty died. So, apart from these statues, what remains of their fortune?”
“Nothing,” Cristoforo Vacchi said simply.
“So why are there still Fontanellis and Vacchis? And why does the Giacomo Fontanelli fortune still exist?”
Cristoforo shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody from our families ever reigned, ruled, or played any prominent role. Remember that many Medici were killed, and most of their relatives too. The Fontanelli fortune was never invested in business, crusades or bribes. It just sat there and grew steadily, unnoticed by anyone. It was its very inconspicuousness that triumphed.”
The office was only a few streets away, in an ordinary little alley, if anything in Florence could be called ordinary. The alley was a dark, cobblestoned chasm flanked by ancient-looking facades. The front door had been painted dark-green at one time. It was massive and scarred by time and weather, the paint had mostly peeled off, and next to it was a rusty mailbox with the Vacchi name engraved on it. Nothing else.
“How do your clients even find you here?” John asked as Cristoforo pulled out his keys.
“We no longer really have any clients who come looking for us,” the lawyer told him as he unlocked the door.
When he looked around the inside of the narrow building, John realized the dilapidated façade was only camouflage. There were automatic locking bolts made of shiny chromium steel mounted on the inside of the door and a small video camera watching them. Cristoforo went to a wall-mounted keyboard and tapped in at least 10 numbers, whereupon a red LED lamp turned green. Up and down the entire stairwell he heard distant clicking noises, from all the doors being automatically unlocked.
“We have many old original documents stored here,” Cristoforo explained as they climbed the stairs, crooked and aged, perhaps themselves centuries old. “Until now, we really had no reason to fear anyone would break into the office, but, one never knows. The second floor used to be an apartment for one of the Vacchi families until the last century. These days there’s only one real apartment left, in case one of us has a lot of work to do and doesn’t want to drive all the way home; that’s on the fourth floor.”
He opened another door to reveal glass display cases that stretched as far as John could see, inside them endless were rows of dark, old tomes. The glass of the cases reflected the neon light from the low ceiling as John stepped closer to try and read the faded writing on the spines of the books … 1714, 1715, 1716 and so forth. It smelled like a museum: dust, cleaning fluids and linoleum flooring.
“What sort of books are those?” John asked.
“Accounting books,” the Padrone answered with a smile. “In them, you can see exactly how your fortune developed. My ancestors were very meticulous in this respect. One must humbly say that the account books of the Vacchis were much more exact and complete than those of Giacomo himself.”
“Do those still exist too?”
“Of course. Come along.”
John followed the old man through a low doorway, ducking his head just in case, and stepped into a room that was resembled the last. But it was not exactly the same; upon closer inspection he saw that the books here were thinner, more worn and generally looked older, and that the display cases were more solid, practically armored, and with built-in air-conditioning.
“Because of the air pollution,” Cristoforo Vacchi explained, shaking his head sadly. “Down all the past centuries the books hadn’t suffered as much as in the past decades. We had to ensure clean air for the books; otherwise they would have been damaged by car exhaust fumes.”
They went through another door and into a small, almost empty, dark room that resembled a chapel. A crucifix hung on a wall and below it stood a display table, which had a chair standing by it. Cristoforo switched on two lamps that illuminated a compartment inside the glass-topped table. John stepped closer and felt an odd shudder go through his body. He sensed what he saw even before the lawyer spoke.
“This is the testament,” Cristoforo explained, as if referring to something sacred, “Giacomo Fontanelli’s last will.”
The testament consisted of two large, thick, dark-brown sheets of strangely lustrous paper, lying on white velvet underneath a glass plate. The writing on them was small and angular and barely legible. Both sheets were crammed with text and bound together with fragile looking strips of cloth, which had impressive looking seals attached to their ends.
John pulled up the chair, which like everything else here also looked old, old and yet solid. He sat down, leaned over the glass and looked at the documents more closely, trying to comprehend that an ancestor of his had written these words with his own hands, setting in motion this insane project.
“I don’t understand a single word,” he finally admitted. “But I guess that this is medieval Italian, or something?”
John nodded, stared at the dark-brown elegantly curved lines of the capital letters. It reminded him of a page from an old handwritten bible. “Latin. Did Lorenzo know Latin?”
The Padrone put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t torture yourself with that,” he told him. “His death is no fault of yours.”
“But I’m the beneficiary.”
The lawyer’s hand kneaded his shoulder. “You are the heir. Look here.” He pointed to a part of the handwritten text, where John indeed could see a date written in Roman numerals. “The youngest male descendant who is alive on the 23 of April 1995. Alive — that is you, John. You’re the one.”
John’s eyes wandered further down over the ancient document, and stopped by the elegant signature. Adjacent to it were a few more, smaller signatures; witnesses maybe, or tokens from notaries public, just like the dark, fragile seals. He had no idea if this document looked like a typical testament from the fifteenth century. The Padrone could have shown him just about anything and insisted that this or that was written on it. Only, what sort of sense would it make to falsify something like this? They were the ones who wanted to give him a trillion dollars. They were even enthusiastic about making him the richest man on earth. They had no reason to lie.
What sort of man was this Giacomo Fontanelli? A religious fanatic? His signature looked strong, rounded and confident. The signature of a man in full possession of his senses and who knew what he was doing. John wished he could read the testament. No, what he really wanted was to know what it might be like to have such a clear vision that it would change your life and control your destiny.
Diagonally above the table was a small window that resembled a castle’s embrasure glazed with thick streaky glass. A small part of a dome could be seen through it, and John wondered if it was the chapel Michelangelo had built for the dead Medici. He didn’t know, didn’t even have the slightest idea what direction this window faced.
Michelangelo? Why was this name so special to him that it kept going around in the back of his mind? It was almost as if there was a voice deep within his head that kept saying the name, as if to remind him of something. But remind him of what? Michelangelo. He painted the Sistine Chapel in Rome. In Rome, where Lorenzo was born, lived and died.
“How old was I when Lorenzo was born?”
“I beg your pardon?” Cristoforo uttered, startled out of his own thoughts.
“Twelve,” John said answering his question. “About twelve. And prior to that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Before Lorenzo’s death. Who was the candidate?” John knew but asked anyway.
“You.” He said it as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
“Were you watching me back then?”
Now the memory came back to him, gushing up from the depths of his mind like water from a fountain: an elegantly dressed gentleman, silver temples, a manicured hand that handed him a chocolate bar, a benevolent expression below bushy eyebrows. Now he suddenly understood what this voice inside tried to tell him. It wasn’t saying “Michelangelo,” but “Mr. Angelo!” John exclaimed. He turned around, touched Cristoforo Vacchi’s face, and looked at his hunched, gaunt figure. “You were Mr. Angelo, am I right?”
The Padrone smiled gently. “You remember?”
“I saw you once — when you arrived on a flight from Europe. You had nothing with you except a plastic bag with shoes in it.”
“Oh, that. You saw me then? That was my last visit. Normally I stayed in New York for a few days. After Lorenzo was born, I wanted to see you one more time, but you were not there when I went to your father’s shop. That’s odd. You were in the airport on that day?”
John nodded. He began to recognize more and more about this old gentleman who he had once known. How long ago all this was! No wonder Cristoforo Vacchi seemed so familiar to him right from the start. “Yes. I can’t remember exactly why; I think a friend’s mom or dad had taken me with them — to get out of the house. But I saw you. For a long time I thought you never came back again because I had discovered your secret.”
“Like in the fairy tale. Yes, I understand.” The old man nodded in thought. “Now, in retrospect, I think that we had overdone it with our observations. We couldn’t wait, even though the testament says explicitly that we could only introduce ourselves to you after the specified date. When you were still little we visited repeatedly. Alberto accompanied me initially and later Gregorio came, and in the beginning my late brother Aldo. We watched you on the way to school, at the playground …”
Recollections, like memories of a land beyond the looking glass. “I remember coming across strange men who asked me strange questions. I remember three men in coats who stood on the other side of a fence while I was swinging. A large dark man with hair on the back of his hands …”
“Who that was I don’t know, but the three men by the fence were Aldo, Alberto, and me.”
John had to laugh. “My mother was always worried when I told her about that. First she thought they were some perverts, and then later she thought that there was something wrong with me.” He looked at the testament under the glass, the seals, the signature … “Who would have ever thought …?”
“Come,” Cristoforo told him, “I want to show you something else.”
They went downstairs to the cellar. The ceiling was low and there were no windows, but the whole place was amply lit, the walls finely stuccoed, and it looked almost clinically clean. The short hallway they went through ended with a heavy black-painted steel door. The sound of an electric motor could be heard, similar to a fridge running, which was odd in this house with walls as thick as a castle’s insulating them from all exterior noise. The gadget making the racket was a computer.