Two months previously, on board the Serenissima, somewhere in the Adriatic
The trading voyage to sell on Bompanzini’s consignment of contraband wine had been swiftly arranged and had commenced in secret. The customs declarations were forged, a small crew of reliable men was picked, and the actual loading and embarkation had taken place on a distant and rarely used jetty on the far side of the docks. The port authorities were not overly concerned with goods leaving the port. In general they spent more of their time scrutinizing incoming shipments to ensure that the relevant taxes and levies had been duly paid.
Selling the wine had proceeded smoothly. They visited a series of minor ports dotted around the coast of the Adriatic, offloading a portion of the cargo at each stop and exchanging it for the arranged chests of ducats. Bompanzini had accompanied them for the first part of the voyage to oversee the transactions before transferring to another vessel to return home. The arrangement was for the portion of the gold due to Bompanzini and that due to repay the letter of credit for Father Carmello to be unloaded in Ravenna, leaving the remainder as pure profit for the di Rossini family business.
Antonio was in his cabin checking the sheaf of paperwork left by Bompanzini – invoices, bills of exchange and receipts for each delivery. The paperwork was neatly stored in a leather document wallet tied with a ribbon, and Antonio was sorting and replacing the documents as he checked them when he found something that puzzled him.
He noticed a sheet of parchment that was stuck to the back of a receipt that had been signed by Bompanzini. He carefully peeled the two pieces of paper apart so as to avoid tearing either of them and saw a tell-tale circular stain of a sticky red wine that obviously had caused the documents to adhere. He examined the new document and saw that it appeared to be a list of names, specifically prominent members of the Venetian Grand Council. Against each name was a particular symbol – a star, a question mark or a dagger – and a number. Some of the symbols had been clearly been amended and changed, with questions marks becoming stars and a few becoming daggers. The column of numbers had been neatly totaled, with the figure at the bottom being just shy of ten million. Antonio was particularly troubled to find his own name on the list with a line scratched through it and the figure amended to a zero.
It did not take a great deal of imagination to suppose that figures were bribes to be paid to certain members of the council, but for what purpose Antonio could not be sure. The symbols and the presence of his own name on the list made the situation more confusing still. He resolved to challenge Bompanzini about the matter before handing over the gold – a very substantial bargaining chip, to be sure.
He left his cramped but functional and comfortable cabin, and went in search of the ship’s captain – a stolid and reliable fellow called Benito Parese, who had worked for the di Rossini family for all of his working life, starting as a cabin boy and progressing to his current rank by dint of hard work and honest service. He was the only other person on board who had an inkling of exactly how much gold was on board.
“Captain Parese, I think that there may need to be a change of plan. I fear that our business partners are involved in some form of corruption and furthermore they may be planning on betraying us and taking the whole sum for themselves.”
Benito looked at his employer.
“Permission to give my honest opinion, sir?”
Antonio nodded his assent, he valued the thoughts of his employees and was always willing to give them due consideration.
“If you don’t mind my saying Sir, in my experience, if a deal seems too good to be true then it probably is. This business has been too easy for my tastes, and I suspected that something was not entirely above board about these arrangements. What do you propose to do?”
“I’ll take a jolly boat ashore, and I want you to take the Serenissima back out to sea. I’m due to meet Carmello and Bompanzini tonight, so I’ll challenge them about exactly what game they think that they are playing. I do not want you to land or surrender the gold unless I signal you with three long flashes of a shuttered lantern. If something is amiss then take the ship to one of the smuggler’s haunts on the islands to the north, and return to Venice when you judge it is safe to do so.”
“Very good sir. Are you sure you want to go to this meeting alone? These men could be dangerous if they are already planning to double cross us.”
“I’ve gotten us into this mess and it is my responsibility to my family and the company to get us out of it again. If anything should happen to me, I am counting on you to get the gold to safety"
"Very good Sir" replied Captain Parese, delivering a sharp salute to show his intention to do his duty. Antonio di Rossini knew then that he could trust him.