He slides the panel under his shirt, aged canvas abrading his skin as he buttons his jacket over it, his heart beating against the mysterious four-hundred-year-old beauty who has witnessed her own abduction more than once, observed countless assignations from the wall of Napoleon's bedroom, and endured the gapes and stares of millions, and now, tired and world-weary, she yearns to rest—but her story is far from over.
Carlo Bianchi dabbed the handkerchief to his dripping nose. His shop, on the Via Stracciatella, not far from the Ponte Vecchio, was small and cramped, books in shelves, on his desk, scattered around the floor in stacks like miniature Mayan villages, everything covered in dust, the place reeking of mold and damp.
Bianchi was looking for a book on rococo garden design, which he knew was here somewhere. He finally found it at the very bottom of a tall stack. Lying on his side, beard picking up lint, he was just inching the book out when he saw the man's thick-soled sneakers.
Bianchi twisted his neck for an angled view. "Posso aiutarla?"
The man peered down at him. "Do you speak English?"
"Yes," said Bianchi, getting to his feet, slapping dust from his pants and jacket. "One learns many languages in a lifetime of dealing with books."
"I am looking for a diary, a journal that you recently purchased from a French book dealer named Pelletier."
"Pelletier? Let me think. I should have a list of recent purchases." Bianchi made a show of sorting through a mass of receipts on his desk. He knew every book he sold or purchased, including those to and from the French dealer, Pelletier, though he never gave out a customer's personal information.
"This journal was written over a hundred years ago," the man said. Pelletier had sworn he'd sold the journal to Bianchi, and people rarely told lies when they had just lost a finger and there was the threat of losing another. "Surely, you would remember buying such a book." He laid his hand over Bianchi's, then pressed it against the wooden desktop.
"Sì, sì, I remember," Bianchi said. "It was handwritten and in Italian!"
The man eased up, and Bianchi slid his hand out, backing away, practically bowing. "I am sorry...but...the journal...I have already sold it."
"To an old man who collects such things, no one important."
"I don't re—"
The man grabbed Bianchi by the front of his jacket and lifted him off the floor. "The name. Now."
Arms flapping, legs dangling a few inches above the floor, Bianchi gasped the name: "G-Guggliermo!"
The man let go, and Bianchi landed unsteadily, knocking over a tower of books.
"And where might I find this Guggliermo?"
"He...he is a"—Bianchi tried to catch his breath—"a professore, at the university—in Firenze—but, but I think he is retired." He stole a glance at the window to see if there was anyone outside, a passerby he might call for help, but the man shifted his body to obscure his view.
"I—I am certain if you inquired at the university—"
The man gave him a dead-eyed stare, and Bianchi quickly thumbed through his Rolodex, fingers trembling. He found the card and began to read from it, but the man snatched it from his hand. "You did not read the journal, did you?"
"Me? No, no." Bianchi shook his head back and forth.
"And yet you knew it was handwritten and in Italian."
"Pelletier must have...told me...or...perhaps I glanced at a page, but that was all."
"I see," the man said, lips pulling back to reveal tobacco-stained teeth. He slipped the card into his pocket. "And you will not speak of my visit, not to this Guggliermo, not to anyone."
"No, signore. No. Not even to Pelletier. I would never say a word."
"Of course not," the man said.
Bianchi was still trying to recover his breath and balance when the man thrust a fist into his chest. Bianchi stumbled back, arms flailing, knocking over another stack of books before he fell. The man lifted him up, hands around his neck, tightening and squeezing. Bianchi tried to speak, to plead, but managed only a few strangled squawks, the room going in and out of focus.
"No. Not a word," the man said as he felt the bookseller's larynx snap.