Venice X 2 —Not an ordinary vacation…

Venice X 2

            The first time Frank heard the melody his bag was clacking on the pavement as he walked from the canal. The music floated down from an open window in the narrow calle. The song was somehow both familiar and strange. The fine brown hairs on the back of his neck stiffened—half with delight and half with fear. He looked up and the street sign read Rio Terra Dei Assassini. He chuckled and moved on to the hotel.

“Have you been to Venice before?”

“Yes, but only once and it was years ago.”

The concierge gave him a map. Frank’s business appointment wasn’t until Friday. That gave him four full days to explore the city built of mazes and music. His first visit had consisted of two dreadful day-trips with his wife’s family. He felt no need to repeat the walking tour, gondola ride, and spaghetti dinner. This would be his personal Venice tour.

“Your room will be ready in a few hours. Please have a coffee in the garden and we’ll bring your bag up later. Would you like a recommendation for lunch?”

“No, I think I’ll take a long walk and stop at an osteria that looks appealing.”

“Very good, sir, very good idea.”

“And the opera … I’d like to see what’s at La Fenice.”

“The new production of Don Giovanni debuted last week. I could call for you or you can walk over to the box office.”

“Yes, I’ll go to the box office and see what single seats are available.”

Frank knew he sounded like an opera fan, but had never been. His introduction to classical music was the Bugs Bunny Rabbit of Seville cartoon parody, and since then he’d quietly accumulated miscellaneous recordings that he played in the car when he was alone. Beautiful music awakened something deep in his soul—something no one in his life seemed to understand.

“You’re such an old softy,” his wife would say when she caught a glimpse of his face in response to the background music of a television movie.

When he broached the idea of attending a symphony she laughed. It stung when his father-in-law sneered and said that a neighbor’s fondness for Beethoven meant he was “a fruit.”

They were so limited and without them, at least for a few days, Frank felt limitless. He bought a single ticket for a box seat at Thursday’s performance. It cost an astronomical sum, but business was good and he was a frugal man. Other men bought expensive golf clubs, gambled for fun, or wore big gold watches. Filling playlists on his phone with Puccini, Bach, Mozart, Hayden, and Verdi cost almost nothing. It was his private indulgence.

From La Fenice, he followed the signs that pointed toward the Rialto; as he crossed, he watched the tourists take selfies with the glittering water and gondolas in the background. He headed toward the market, not because he wanted to shop, but simply to have a destination. The café tables facing the Grand Canal were occupied with people enjoying pre-lunch aperitifs. When two young women vacated a front row table just as he was passing, he took it as a sign of welcome and sat down.

“A spritz?” the waiter asked and Frank impulsively agreed, guessing it was the orange cocktail on most of the tables.

The drink came with a small bowl of chips and a second bowl of olives. The salty snacks were perfect with the bubbly concoction. A compact yacht glided by. The same romantic tune emanated from the deck. He looked up to see the driver, but only caught the back of the man’s head. The yachtsman had short, light brown hair, flecked with gray and medium build—the definition of an unremarkable appearance.

He chuckled. Being unremarkable was an asset in his business life. It made people underestimate him and sometimes not notice him at all. Of course this quality of invisibility was a detriment in his personal life. People seemed to look right through him. For once, he thought as he admired the orange drink, how he’d like to experience entering a room with a commanding presence—all eyes turning on him, with an intake of breath and the aroma of awe tinged with fear. That would be as delicious as this drink.

He listened to a cacophony of conversations around him—Italian, German, English, Japanese, Polish and something that might have been Norwegian. He wasn’t sure. His work had taken him many places, but never to Scandinavia. He longed to go to new places.

Curiously, he felt less alone in a city filled with tourists than he did at home on Christmas day surrounded by family. Looking out as a crowded vaporetto sped by, he was flooded with a mixture of unfamiliar emotions. The reality of his situation came into sharp focus. The only one that really mattered was his daughter, Celia. She would have loved a trip to Venice, but this was business. He’d have to tell her about Venice when he got home.

When she was younger, they’d taken a few father/daughter trips together—indulging her interest in history. They went to see Monticello, Mount Vernon, Hyde Park, the Liberty Bell and, nearer to home, The Cloisters, the U.N. Headquarters, and the Intrepid Sea & Air Museum.

Now, she was a junior at Yale studying history and had already announced to the family that this summer she would be traveling to historic sites in Great Britain with a group of classmates. He’d miss her, but he understood. Celia didn’t belong on those family vacations any more than he did. Everyone in the family acknowledged that Celia was smart—far smarter than her cousins.

“I’ll put your girl through law school, Frank,” his father-in-law had said. “We can always use a smart lawyer in the business.”

The last thing he wanted for his daughter was a life tied to his wife’s family.

“Do whatever you want to do,” he whispered in Celia’s ear when her grandfather went on and on about his Ivy League granddaughter.

“Don’t worry about me, Dad,” she replied. “I know I don’t belong here.”

And she didn’t.

The Labor Day cookout quashed any doubts. Celia’s first and second cousins were gathered around the pool at their grandfather’s beach house. Celia sat on a lounge chair in the shade, reading a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft on her Kindle while her cousins played drunken water volleyball or worked on their tans.

Some of the kids were sweet and some were even clever, in a school-of-life manner, but none were her intellectual equal. They skated through high school with B or C averages and went to second-tier party schools or dropped out and took up trades through the family connections. Angela was two years older than Celia and one of the nicest of that generation. She had a newly minted hairdresser’s license and braided all the girls’ hair.

“Celia, you finally look like one of the family,” Angela joked. “Or you would if you let me do your make-up. You have fab eyes, a little liner, maybe a lash tint … At least let me shape those eyebrows.”

Celia let her cousin do her make-up and everyone told her she looked wonderful. She did. But her cousins didn’t realize that there was so much more in her future—so much more than elaborate make-up, lavish hairstyles, and fashionable clothes. The old man saw it. He saw that she could look like the rest of them while really being smarter and more useful than the others. The crass old man saw a gold mine in his special grandchild.

“Celia is safe at school,” he whispered to himself as he settled the bill and strolled past the fish market stalls to find a place for lunch.

It hadn’t always been like this. He went crazy about Toni when they met—head-over-heels in love with her at first sight. She was working for her uncle Tommy at his red sauce Italian restaurant in Queens. Frank was there to meet with her uncle on business. Toni, short for Antonia, was slender and petite, with dark brown hair and even darker brown eyes.

“Flirting with my new accountant?” Her uncle Tommy approached the table where Frank sat spellbound by the young woman.

Toni’s attraction for the Jewish accountant should have ended as quickly as it started, but Toni got pregnant and the family embraced him as her less-than-optimal choice for a husband. They rushed to the church and Frank agreed that their children would be raised Catholic. The first three years were blissful. Toni loved being a mother. She was devoted to Celia and couldn’t wait to have more kids. That’s when it all fell apart. Toni’s second pregnancy ended in a son who lived two days and an emergency hysterectomy. She was twenty-five and bereft. Nothing Frank said or did made a difference. It was as if her life were over.

It wasn’t. But it was a different life. Toni felt like God was punishing her for the frivolous life she led as a flirtatious and, somewhat, promiscuous young woman. She didn’t blame Frank—she blamed herself. But Frank was part of the problem, part of the punishment. Managing Big Tony’s bakery, helping out at her sister’s hair salon during the holidays, serving on committees at the church and organizing various family gatherings ate away at the free hours not dedicated to her one child. She said she was happy. She loved her daughter. She told everyone that Frank was a good provider. But the light had gone out in her eyes.

Frank felt like he was a constant reminder of her pain. It made him want to run away, but Celia—and inertia—kept him in check. Life rolled on. He traveled for work. Listened to beautiful music in secret. And, most of all, made sure that Celia was not swept up in the family’s wake. The current ran deep. It was hard to swim away. He wanted to make sure she could and would as soon as she was able. It was his sole job as a parent.

Frank looked at a family laughing and drinking in the sunshine. If only his son had lived, if only Big Tony liked him—instead of merely tolerating him. If only Toni were happy. If only life were different … but it wasn’t. His son was dead. Big Tony dismissed him. Toni was chronically depressed. He needed to move on, but he couldn’t until he was sure that Celia no longer needed him.

Frank meandered over a series of little bridges, down narrow alleys, and through the market stalls. He followed a happy family of tourists into a bistro that boasted local seafood antipasto and fresh pasta. The aroma was inviting and, if only for the moment or two as he entered the dark restaurant, he could pretend to be part of the jovial party. Most of the time he was all right being alone, but suddenly he felt lonely.

Was it time to make serious changes? Almost. In the meantime, he floated.

Frank spent Tuesday and Wednesday walking up and down bridges, eating wonderful food, and attending small concerts in churches. Thursday morning he walked to San Marco. He took a table at Florian’s, ordered a cappuccino and croissant and settled in to watch the crowds in the square. Tour groups followed guides with umbrellas held aloft, lovers strolled holding hands, and families took group photos.

The pigeons swarmed, pecking at crumbs and brazenly landed on café tables to steal unguarded food. The band played “Volare” and Frank’s heart ached. He hated the song. It was one of big Tony’s favorites. But it reminded him of Toni—when she was young and loved him. A paterfamilias, resembling Big Tony, placed cookie crumbs on his grandson’s shoulders inviting pigeons for a photo opp.

He remembered that long ago family cruise. He had taken Celia to the Doge’s Palace while the rest of the family teased the pigeons. Big Tony made fun of him.

“You afraid of a few birds?”

“They are filthy, Grandpa,” Celia was emphatic.

Tony laughed.

Big and tough, he enjoyed the little girl talking back to him.

“Grandpa, I want to go hear the band play. I’m not letting a pigeon sit on my head!”

“Volare” faded and was replaced by “New York, New York”—this was Big Tony’s music.

Frank didn’t order another coffee until the band switched gears with rousing renditions of familiar classical tunes. He smiled through a melody from Carmen and at a tango tune he remembered from Scent of a Woman—a film he’d seen years ago when Toni was still happy.

He checked in with the front desk of the hotel. The day before his business appointment he usually received everything he needed for that particular meeting. This time, the concierge gave him a small box bearing the name of a high-end Murano glass manufacturer. The young woman commented on its weight as she handed it over.

“Yes, I ordered a paperweight for my father-in-law’s desk,” Frank lied with a smile.

Upstairs in his room, behind a locked door and only after he was certain that the curtains were drawn tight, Frank finally opened the package. The gun felt good in his hand. However, the accompanying information caused him to shudder. The photo of tomorrow’s assignment bore an uncanny resemblance to himself and went by the name Frank had used professionally early in his career. He studied the man’s face. They could be twins—albeit twins with separate lives and habits. The subject’s face was weather-beaten and ruddy, from years on boats, and his belly protruded over his belt, as Frank’s would have if he weren’t so careful about food and exercise.

It was obvious. One of the bosses in New York or New Jersey was taking care of loose ends from a past “project.” Frank always knew that this was a possibility. He’d used this name back before he used a broker to arrange his assignments. It was a name well-known among a select circle—a circle high above Big Tony and his petty money laundering operations and sub-standard plumping companies.

The only one in the family who knew he wasn’t actually an accountant was Uncle Tommy (Toni’s maternal uncle who’d been dead for more than ten years) and Tommy knew him as a fixer who arranged eliminations and not as a hands-on assassin.

Tommy liked to call Frank “The Accountant” because he arranged to get rid of people the way a clever accountant made errant figures on a balance sheet disappear. Tommy had hired him to eliminate a deadbeat business partner with a substantial partner life insurance policy. Frank took care of Tommy’s extraneous accounting line item before his first date with Toni. The insurance payoff bailed Tommy’s restaurant out of a jam.

It felt like a lifetime ago.

Now, he’d been hired to eliminate himself. It was ironic on so many levels.

Frank checked his watch. He had time for a walk and dinner before the opera. There was no way for Frank to discover if the man were a true innocent or, more likely, a sloppy, second-rate made man who’d run off to Europe using the name, and reputation, Frank had cultivated years ago. The man lived quietly in a small house near the Academia Bridge and traveled around Venice in a small yacht.

Was he the nondescript man on the Grand Canal? Perhaps, but it didn’t matter. Life was full of odd twists and turns, coincidences and unexpected collisions of lives better off kept separate and safe. Frank would accomplish his assignment in the morning after enjoying his first night at the opera. That was all he could be sure of in an uncertain and peculiar world.

Frank arrived early and reveled in the ornate royal box where his single seat gave him a perfect view of the stage and of the opera fans filing into the orchestra seats below. From the moment the overture began, he was enchanted. Romance, sex, murder, betrayal, lust, jealousy, revenge, heartbreak, greed, love—Don Giovanni had it all. It was life set to music. When Don Giovanni and the beautiful Zerlina sang their duet, Frank was swept away.

“Andiam! Andiam! (Let’s Go! Let’s Go!)

By the end of the opera he made up his mind. It was time to go!

He would kill two birds with one stone—two assassinations with one gunshot. He would, as was his custom, arrange for proof of the kill to be sent to his broker so that the second/final payment on the assignment would be sent to his offshore account. But he would also plant his Frank-the-accountant-and-family-man passport on the body of his doppelganger and arrange for the body to be found after just enough time in a canal to assure bloating and mild disfigurement. One quick discreet e-mail to the right person and the dental records in the U.S. would match the corpse.

His current identity, the one registered at the modest hotel near the opera house, carried a duel U.S./E.U. citizenship through Irish ancestry, and he would melt into the continent before the body was found.

“Andiam! Andiam!

Celia would be fine. She was strong, smart and brave. Toni would make a lovely, relatively young, widow. Perhaps she’d remarry a man with young children for her to mother? Big Tony and the rest would never know how closely their lives had been tangled with a real killer—and that was fine with him. Their romantic notions about the bosses, fidelity, and organized crime were nonsense and belonged in mobster movies. It was time to leave it all behind.

“Andiam! Andiam!

His next life would be filled with music.