Mythaxis

Commedia del'l Venezia


Gil Williamson


“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; A palace and a prison on each hand.”
Lord Byron.

The ancient city of Venice, as everybody knows, is an island inside a lagoon at the northern end of the Adriatic. The island is divided into two by the Grand Canal, which zigs, zags and zigs from north to south in the shape of a lazy figure 2. The city traditionally governed an area of north east Italy, and over many centuries was a major naval, mercantile, financial and colonial power. For most of its history, it was an independent state, and it maintained this spirit of independence even while it was passed back and forth between Italy and Austria for a while.

Italy fumbled the ball when their financial problems with the EU could no longer be ignored, and Venetian public works were said to be bankrupting the nation. So Italy tried to sell Venice to the highest bidder. There were no takers, but the city staged a sort of management buy-out, and now we have what we always wanted - actual independence, like Scotland and Catalonia. We have re-invented ourselves as a nation state, a free port and a tax haven, much more profitable and respectable than our previous occupation - tourist trap. The waterbuses, still known as 'vaporetti', no longer roar and fume as they did when I was a child. An electric whine propels them smoothly along the canals.

This is not the Venice of the early twenty-first century, with three million tourists a year. This is the Venice of the late twenty-first century, more resembling the Venice of the nineteenth century Grand Tour, where the majority of visitors were scholars, artists and writers. Most of us who work in Venice also live here.

On a chilly, bright, November morning, I was walking towards my place of work along the Fondamenta Cannaregio, alongside the canal on my left. I remembered, when I was a child, seeing egrets spearing tiny fish where I was now walking. Looking like tiny herons, egrets are naturally nervous birds, but they took advantage of Venice's acqua alta in which seasonal high tides caused the city to be regularly flooded. Sirens and other alarms accompanied these floods. The high tides seldom invaded homes to a very great extent. Nevertheless, many households opted to abandon the ground floors of their dwellings, and moved upstairs on a permanent basis. I reflected that acqua alta was a thing of the past now, the Tidal Harness project having, at one stroke, solved both the flooding problem and part of the city's need for electric power.

Or so I thought. Even as I checked my x-pda e-mail on the hoof, a strange, low-pitched creaking noise from across the water attracted my attention. The ominous groan was followed by the graceful collapse of a building into the canal. This surprising event was accompanied by a minor tsunami, and I was briefly standing up to the knees in what was once egret territory. An electric water taxi was flung against a moored delivery vessel and nearly overturned. This was, at one stroke, irritating and interesting. Most of the water returned to the canal quite rapidly, leaving only a few centimetres in nearby shops and in my shoes. This latter inconvenience was forgotten in the shock at having witnessed some hundreds of tons of masonry arriving in a navigable waterway. A queue of vaporetti, cargo barges, water taxis, and siren-wielding police and fire launches accumulated around the blockage. In due course, rumour reported that the building had been empty and that no-one was injured or missing. I moved away from the scene when a heavy-duty barge with a huge JCB backhoe on its foredeck was towed into place and started to clear the channel. The barge was tilted acutely forward due to the weight of the digger, and the whole vessel wobbled alarmingly from side to side as the JCB transferred masonry to the barge's open hold, but Venetian engineers have always regarded this kind of waterborne operation as business as usual.

Having fortified myself with a caffè corretto in a local café, I texted my deputy Tomas that I was returning home to change my trousers, socks and shoes. When I left home again, it was nearly lunchtime. Lunch beckoned, I answered the call. I deserved a good lunch.

That was why it was mid-afternoon by the time I walked past the scene of the accident again. The quayside was swarming with spectators and officials. I was told that it had been the old Finance Administration office, empty and under renovation. Heads were going to roll, I heard. Bribery and corruption of high officials was suspected. I discounted most of this. Whilst high crimes and misdemeanours have always been a feature of Venetian life, I find stupidity to be a more common cause of disasters like this. Like many of the buildings in Venice, the Finance Administration office had started life as a church. By the time Venice became independent thirty years ago, many churches had been repurposed as theatres, art galleries, museums, even supermarkets, but church architecture rendered them rather unsatisfactory as offices.

Meanwhile, the canal was navigable in single file. A couple of policemen were attempting to organise traffic flow with the aid of flags and megaphones, but since ACTV waterbuses are now driverless, the change in canal geography confused their software, while flags were perceived as moving obstructions, and the waterbuses plunged forwards and backwards without making any progress. Similarly, a convoy of driverless barges was complicating the issue behind the jam.

Venetian boatmen are a law unto themselves, however, and the frantic signals were largely ignored by any boat with a driver, priority of passage through the narrow channel being determined by size or manouevreability of vessel and by how loud and threatening were their airhorns or the shouts of their drivers.

My cell rang. It was Tomas. "Where are you, boss? You were going to get here before lunch."

"Nearly there. What's the problem?"

"Palumbo is looking for you. I told him you'd had an accident and you'd be in soon."

I wasn't used to being pressurised in this job. Chief Security Officer for a multinational company headquarters sounded impressive enough, but, in practice, it hadn't been particularly onerous. I was a fugitive from the Carabinieri - Italy's military police. Not in the sense of being pursued by them, but as an ex-employee who had succeeded in getting a nice job in civic society. Checking personnel for identity and criminal history? My previous career helped there. Making sure access to the building was electronically controlled and wiring the building up with surveillance cameras and a control room? The contract awarded to a local firm. Did I accept a modest reward for choosing a particular security company? Of course I did. Suspicions would have arisen if I hadn't.

The office. A venerable palazzo with an abandoned, slightly sunken, ground floor and a well-worn, marble, dramatic, staircase to the inhabited upper levels. Ancient floor tiles, stone window frames, marble and granite pediments, ceiling art, the whole Venetian experience. The building is entered, however, through a mean little door in a gloomy alleyway. The other side of the building faces - looms over - the canal. That side has a magnificent reconditioned water entrance, accessible only by boat, and used for the delivery of large items and the reception of VIPs.

I made my way to the boss's opulent domain. The boss. One hundred and ten kilos of flesh, wrapped in an Armani suit. A bullet head with tiny eyes and rubbery lips. To be deferred to and addressed as Dottor Palumbo.

In addition to the boss, there were two other men in the boss's office when I arrived. Vincenzo Grasso, the IT chief - skinny, sporting a beard that would disgrace a nanny goat, no dress sense. And Luigi Lombardo, the consultant architect, who advised on structural matters and building regulation - smooth and elegant, clean hands. All eyes were on me.

Palumbo said: "Ah, Fabbri, at last. I hope we have not wrenched you from the arms of your lover this afternoon."

I tried not to show any surprise that Palumbo knew about my occasional lunchtime assignations and replied "Dottore, I was almost drowned this morning. It is a miracle that I stand before you now."

"Don't lay it on too thick, Fabbri. I understand you witnessed a building collapse this morning, and got your feet wet."

"Certainly, Dottore."

"How did it happen?"

"It seemed quite spontaneous."

"Spontaneous? What does that mean?

"As far as I can gather, the place just fell in the canal. It was closed and unoccupied at the time. There was no explosion. No warning. I was there."

"And why were you there?"

"Pure chance, Dottore. I had just got off the vaporetto at the Guglie waterbus stop. I was on my way here. It was very shocking."

"Yes, well, Fabbri. We've all had a look. It's only a few hundred metres away. Meanwhile, we have a serious situation here," said Palumbo, "There have been threats."

"Threats?" I was floundering, trying not to show it.

Grasso broke in, his silly beard wagging: "Emails threatening the stability of this building and promising a demonstration."

Lombardo said: "What he means is a demonstration such as you witnessed this morning." This earned him a glare from Grasso.

I said: "Someone threatening to demolish this building? How many emails?"

"A dozen or more over three months," said Palumbo.

"A dozen! I'm the security chief here. Why wasn't I told?"

"They were addressed to me. We didn't believe it," said Palumbo, "Not until today."

Lombardo said: "It was news to me too, until today. I am only here because I'm the architectural consultant. I understand building stability."

"My decision," said Palumbo, "I was acutely aware that this kind of thing could cause panic, and the fewer people knew about what was probably a hoax, the better. Anyway, we have to take this seriously now. Fabbri, you're in charge."

"Me?" I said.

"You, naturally. The security chief. I know that you do your work to your own satisfaction, but it happens that you also do it to my satisfaction. Take the lead for the three of you. Please do not involve anyone else."

I said: "Are they asking for money?"

"Of course they are asking for money. It's extortion. We have plenty of money, they want some, and we may end up having to pay, but I am relying on you three to make it unecessary. They've been sensible. It's not a huge amount of money by the company's standards. About one day's profit. But I can't pay it out just for the asking. Either bring these guys to justice or at least determine that the threat is real and that paying them will remove the threat, so I can justify the expenditure. Now get on with it. Go!"

"Are you saying we should not involve the police?" I asked.

Palumbo's eyes bulged with fury: "Of course not! We don't want this all over the newspapers! We can't afford any publicity."

"Got it, Dottore. Just wanted to check."

I mentioned earlier that the company we worked for was a multinational. Let me explain the title. It isn't just that the company has a presence in many countries, trading in each country as a locally incorporated subsidiary company. A multinational company also tends to have a head office in a tax haven like Venice, Singapore or Grand Cayman.

Now, each of the subsidiary companies decides how much tax they want to pay to their host government, or, rather, how little and how late they can get away with paying, bearing in mind that this is partly a political calculation. How much does the host country value the employment the company offers to its citizens (who then pay income tax), or the support the company offers to sports events or charities (which they, the government, are not keen to fund)? Then, no matter how much gross profit the subsidiary actually makes, head office bills the subsidiary for 'accountancy' services to reduce the net profit to the desired level. Or, if this begins to look excessive, charges outrageously high interest on 'loans' supposedly given to the subsidiary.

So, the vast majority of the profit earned by the company as a whole finishes up in the head office, and tax is paid at the local very small tax rate. The vast sum of money is then lodged with an international bank in, say, Switzerland, and subsequently used to buy up smaller rival companies and to enrich the investors. Therefore, most of the head office employees are high-powered accountants, international lawyers and IT staff.

And don't think I disapproved of the company, which, to protect their identity, I shall call "Musestre". They paid me generously for my efforts, but it had begun to look as if I was about to earn my salary.

In the boss's office, I had tried to look as if I understood what was going on, but I didn't fully comprehend the threat until we three gathered in Grasso's office to review some of the emails. They were all a little different, but the message was always clear.

Until today, the messages had taken the form:

From: avenger@collapso.org
To: info@musestrehq.it
Subject: Collapse of Musestre
------------------------
Your building is in danger. We are in a position to make it collapse into the water. We will demonstrate our capability on an unoccupied building. Once that happens, and you will recognise it, you must indicate your willingness to pay one million euros by placing the word 'si' in the bottom left corner of the contact page of your website musestrehq.vc. We will then email instructions for your payment and, if we receive the money within two hours of these instructions, we will withdraw the threat. If you do not indicate your willingness to pay within seven days of our demonstration, then you lose the opportunity to buy your way out, and your building will fall apart. A four hour warning will be given.
Avenger.
Today's message was :
From: avenger@collapso.org
To: info@musestrehq.it
Subject: Collapse of Musestre
------------------------
The clock is ticking. You have five days to indicate 'si' in your contact page.
Avenger.
I said: "I see. Silly question... Have you traced avenger@collapso.org?"

Grasso sneered. "A silly question indeed. Naturally the server collapso.org does not exist. I have not been able to identify the sender, and none of our clever technicians can suggest anything. Analysing the internet route backwards leads us into a maze of redirects which are intrinsically and deliberately untraceable. Such VPNs, as they are called, are designed to foil even governmental oversight. We use them ourselves for privacy purposes. The originator could be anywhere from Mongolia to next door."

"Why do you think they are giving us so little time after giving us the instructions for payment?"

"It's obvious. I imagine they are making sure we cannot plan to identify them in the handover."

"Of course. Sorry. In that case, what if we don't pay, take the risk, and just evacuate the building? We rent it. The problem devolves upon the landlord."

A pained grin from Grasso. "I regret to inform you that the property owner is a subsidiary of Musestre, insured by yet another subsidiary."

"What's the purpose of that?"

Another patronising smile from Grasso: "Accountancy. Tax dodge. Legalised money laundering."

I turned to Lombardo and asked "As a consultant architect, I should ask if it's even possible deliberately to bring a building to a state of collapse like that?"

"Normally, no. Even though Venice is a special case. Believe it or not, the entire city is supported on wooden piles driven through mud into the clay below."

"Yes, I know, and I know that we are all sinking at half a millimetre or so per year. But I hear that the wooden piles are effectively petrified, as, in the absence of oxygen within the mud, they cannot rot."

"This is true, building collapses are almost unknown in Venice, unless you count the campanile in 1902, which is why we initially discounted the threat. But this event today... I must investigate. I have contacts within the firm which was renovating the place."

"So, here we are. We have seven days to solve or surrender. Grasso, I think you must prepare to put the signal on the contact page, but not yet. Chat with the IT managers of other firms in Venice. Make no reference to our problem, but one of your colleagues may let something slip. Perhaps other companies may be under threat."

"That's not a new idea, Fabbri. I've been asking some discreet questions. No response."

"Anything you need to do for your computers in the event of a collapse?"

"That's unthinkable. All the data about this company and all our branch offices is contained in the computers on site here. You cannot overestimate how vital and complex that data is."

"I think I can, Grasso. But isn't it backed up?"

"It's backed up, but only here. We could not afford to allow exterior access to our data. The data centres - the original and the live backup - have no connection to the outside world, so they cannot be hacked. The problem with that is that although our eggs are in two baskets, both baskets are in this building. We could not survive a building collapse like the Finance Administration place this morning."

I turned to Lombardo. "And you will investigate the collapse today? Could it have been accidental? I think you said you have contacts."

"Of course."

I suggested that we should meet here daily at ten in the morning. They agreed.

Grasso set me up with an anonymised e-paq, which he remarked was untraceable in much the same way as the system the blackmailers were using. Then I spent the rest of the day on the internet, looking for analogous cases. Extortion under threat of demolition turned out be unknown, no matter how I posed the question. Grasso seemed gratified by my failure, confiding that he had, in fact, already conducted a similar search.

In fact, to my surprise, Lombardo was as good as his word. The next morning he appeared at our meeting with an ancient, blackened piece of timber. It was a section about fifteen centimetres in length, apparently sawn off a building support pile, roughly circular in cross-section, one end splintered off. On close inspection, the whole section, in particular the splintered end, was weakened by a mass of microscopic holes, as if bored by tiny woodworms.

"So what am I looking at? Accidental or deliberate?" I asked.

"How could one tell?" said Grasso, "It could be anything."

Lombardo said: "It is very unusual. I do not know of any natural cause. I have never seen damage like this. The Venice Conservation department, which checks out all sorts of rot, pests, canal water or acid rain damage are examining a sample like this. I have a contact in the laboratory, so I should know this afternoon."

"Well done, Lombardo, keep up the good work." He glared. It seemed he suspected me of patronising him. Grasso sniggered.

Nevertheless, Lombardo telephoned some hours later and arranged to meet with me in a noisy bar near the office. In a hushed tone, barely audible over the general row, he told me: "The news from the Conservation Department is alarming."

"How so?"

"It appears that the damage to the collapsed building's piles may be the work of nanorobots."

Having nothing to contribute, I just stared at him.

He continued: "Nanorobots are tiny microscopic machines that reproduce each other and can be put to certain tasks."

"I know what nanorobots are, Lombardo. What do you think they use in the manufacture of quantum computers, the conversion of sewage, the purification of water, the removal of particulates and heavy metals from our air-con units? Are you telling me our nanorobots have gone mad and are eating the foundations of buildings?"

"No. They appear to be a specialist type that have been introduced."

"And are they now spreading to every building in the city?"

"Apparently not. They have a short life. I understand Venice Conservation are pursuing this, based on the examples the laboratory has. But not within the timescale we are working to."

"So we're screwed."

"It seems so. Has Grasso made any progress with the emails?"

"Not as far as I know," I said.

"I didn't think he would. I don't like the little turd."

"He's all we've got on the IT front."

I checked with Grasso before leaving work. He and a couple of his techies were wading through a terabyte of internet logs, looking for a clue to the identity of the blackmailers. He did not look hopeful. He showed no interest in the news from Lombardo.

Day 2: The ten o'clock meeting was cancelled. Lombardo couldn't make it. Grasso said he wasn't surprised the pompous ass had nothing new. He named a few other IT managers who might have been threatened. He was going to have a friendly chat with them, and see if anything came up in conversation.

While I knew I couldn't talk to outsiders about the extortion, the collapse of the Financial Administration building was the talk of the city. Most of the flippant conversations centred around the symbolic significance of Financial Administration being all at sea, a total washout, unstable, or requiring a thorough clean out.

I was feeling some frustration, and needed to talk to a scientist in general terms. I knew where my American friend and general manager of the Tidal Harness, Tommy Hay (TH of the TH as he styled himself), would be at lunch-time that day. The golf club. An unexpected, century-old, gem of a course, set in woods at the far end of the Lido. It features the only hill I've ever seen in Venice, about fifteen metres in height.

I took a water taxi all the way to the little marina outside the club.

Tommy was, as predicted, relaxing with a beer in the clubhouse. After a few pleasantries about the weather (excellent) and his golf (disappointing), he felt the need to boast about the Tidal Harness.

"Forget solar energy! A few one-metre tides generated enough lunar energy to operate the barrier to prevent the lagoon flooding due to the same tides. I wonder we aren't slowing the moon down, all the energy we're sucking out of it!"

That said, he appeared to realise that I had questions on my mind, and raised an eyebrow.

"The collapse of the Financial Authority building..." I began.

"Hah! Yes! Very strange and unexpected, of course. Not that the fellows at the Financial Administration are terribly upset. They hated that office! Still, it's a puzzle. Since the Tidal Harness was started up, building erosion due to high tides is almost unknown."

"Quite. I've heard that the piles in the foundations may have been eaten away by nanorobots."

"Preposterous! Where did that idea come up?"

"Just a rumour, but I've heard that there's some evidence."

"Well, a few years ago, there was talk of using stuff like that to remove derelict piles that were clogging up a canal, but nothing came of it. It was Venice Conservation's show, really. I was just involved on behalf of the Harness project."

"So the technology exists?"

"Sure. Some Indonesian company developed the idea to deal with mangrove roots in navigable waterways. Hell, that's not the sort of thing anyone should let loose in Venice."

"I agree. But what if...? Can it be targeted, then stopped?"

"OK. Well, if I remember, international regulations limit the number of generations the machines can reproduce, so that the nanorobots can't run amok. To use them you'd have to continuously supply new starter cultures. It was going to be awkward enough to use them in a dredging operation. To use them inside the city would be lunacy."

The converation drifted away into discussion of the proposed, but endlessly discussed, offshore windfarms and solar panels feeding a huge storage battery on one of the islands, reducing Venice's need to buy electricity from Italy. Every Venetian could hold forth for hours on the subject.

Back at the office, I went to the IT department to talk to Grasso. He wasn't there, but I spoke to one of the techies who had been helping him earlier. According to him, they had found no sign of the origin of the threatening e-mails. "Strange," he said. "I'd expected to recognise a source VPN. The most recent IP on the e-mails doesn't exist."

There was an e-mail for me from Tommy Hay, however. It read:

Hi, I found contact information on that nanorobot company. It's Malaysian, not Indonesian. Kuala Belait Trading Company. The contact is Mahmud Rahman, really great guy, attach his card. You're up to something. Tell me about it some day.
Tommy.

The time in Malaysia would be after office hours. I'd call tomorrow. Besides, I had Commedia dell'Arte to go to. And the Commedia turned out to be important in this story.

The Venice Marionette Theatre was a brilliant new concept in the traditional art of Commedia dell'Arte. It was a small theatre in a Palazzo that had once been used for temporary exhibitions. The Isola di Pinocchio company produced a different play every month, some from the 17th century canon, others newly written in the traditional style, some modelled on modern comedies. All were full of witty contemporary comment, and presented by suitably beautiful string puppets, some of the villains caricaturing a close resemblance to prominent Venetians.

The Commedia depends on a limited number of stock characters in an infinite variety of situations, and it was a monthly treat to be entertained. Seats were in great demand; I wasn't prepared to miss tonight's performance.

As usual, the plot hinged on conspiracies, accidents, disguise, misunderstandings, love, greed, hatred, slapstick and sentimentality. Just like life, in fact.

Day 3: I called Mahmud Rahman, whose information confirmed Tommy's memory of Kuala Belait Trading Company's contact with the Venice Conservation department.

Then I made a Skype call to an old Carabinieri colleague in Rome, an expert in IT fraud, asking him about tracing e-mails. He confirmed that faking the apparent sender of an e-mail was simple, and while internet service providers may disclose client information to governmental authorities, they always take their time about it. The conclusion? You cannot find the originator of an email in our timescale.

I went down to the busy accountancy section of Musestre, where dozens of honest professionals worked the daily miracle of legally defrauding foreign governments of their legitimate tax revenue. My enquiries led me to Irina, who specialised in squirrelling away the money Musestre accumulated.

"Can you spare the time to satisfy my curiosity, Irina. As Security, I think it's important that I know these things."

"Whatever you like," said Irina, a very young woman to be in charge of all these billions.

"I'd like to ask about something we read about in books, where criminals transfer money to a bank account, and that money is immediately and secretly whisked away into untraceable accounts elsewhere."

"And you suspect someone here?"

"Not at all. This is strictly for my own information. We security people must be aware of these hazards."

"Hmm... I suddenly discover that I'm busy right now. Do you mind if we discuss this over lunch?"

I was taken aback. "That's fine. Which restaurant do you prefer?"

"No. No. We'll go to the panini place in the square, and eat outside. OK?"

"I know where you mean. Twelve?"

"Fine."

I was waiting outside the baguette and panini bar at five to twelve, watching two kittens playing 'Tear Your Throat Out', between taking catnaps curled up around each other. Irina arrived late. We ordered.

She said: "I wanted to discuss this with you privately because this is not the first time someone has asked me about this. Someone yesterday asked me to prepare for an urgent cash transfer to an account, possibly foreign, with his authority, no paperwork."

I said: "Our esteemed leader, Mario Palumbo."

"You know about this?"

"Yes. And, as far as the company is concerned, it will be a justified expenditure."

"That's a relief. What's it all about?"

"I can't tell you that, but tell me about these untraceable accounts."

"It's not as easy as people think, and it's pretty expensive, and it takes a while, but here's how it usually works. It's not really my line. The people in the computer department are the best to ask."

"In summary?"

"Well, you contact one of a number of organisations who advertise on the internet. For a fee, they set up a number, at least two, of shell companies in countries with loose banking laws - like Venice is these days. Each company has at least one offshore bank account."

"Shell company?"

"A company in name only. Doesn't really trade, just accepts and disburses money, covering the transactions with fake invoices and receipts. It has to be done in an administration where transfers of greater than $10,000 do not have to be reported."

"I see."

"When the money arrives in the first account, the shell company transfers it to another shell company, usually in another country, in payment of a fake invoice, and so on, and when the money ends up in its destination, the final company issues debit cards so that the owner of the chain can spend the money."

"Simple."

"Not so very simple. It's expensive. Often the arranger takes an upfront fee and as much as twenty percent of the money transferred, and it's illegal, but seldom prosecuted or even detected. There are plenty of apparently respectable people who live on these accounts."

"Thank you, Irina. What you are telling me is that it's entirely possible and virtually undetectable."

"Quite so. Tell me, Fabbri, is this anything to do with the Financial Authority building?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Well, I've seen a lot of that Luigi Lombardo this week, and he was in charge of the FA building renovation."

"No, no. He was nothing to do with that. What made you think so?"

"I'm in constant touch with the FA over technical matters. It's an open secret over there."

"Hmmm. I knew he had contacts with them. I hadn't realised he was so deeply involved. It's really rather delicate. I'd rather you said nothing to anyone else. Another coffee?"

"No thanks. I have some shopping to do. Thanks for lunch!"

I spent part of the afternoon in the Venice Conservation Department. I was passed from official to official, but no-one would talk to me about the FA building. I spent most of my wasted time in the planning department.

Finally, since I was in the area, I visited an old friend, and fellow ex-Carabinieri, Tito Boscone, one of the IT men Grasso had planned to 'chat' with. He hadn't seen Grasso for months. We were about to go out for a drink when I got a call from Dottore Palumbo.

Palumbo was waiting for me in my own office. It was after hours. A bad sign.

"Progress?" he grunted. He looked pale and sweaty.

I gave him a summary of the situation. He indicated surprise about the nanorobots. "So the threat could be real?"

"In theory, but even if the technology exists, it's a little far-fetched," I said.

"Looking at it from my point of view, Fabbri, if we don't pay and it's a hoax, we save a million euros, but if we don't pay and it's real, we could lose millions more, not only in the fabric and contents of the building, but in the loss of valuable data and market position. If we do pay, whether it's real or a hoax, it costs us just one million."

"But, Dottore, the worst, though perhaps least likely, event is that we pay and the threat is still carried out."

"Then we lose just one million more in a disaster of many millions." He paused, then: "The deadline is tomorrow. I have decided to pay. Get Grasso to post that 'si' on the contact page now."

"Dottore, it's getting late," I said. "Grasso's probably home by now. Let's say we signal them now and they reply immediately, we may have difficulty getting a transaction of that size through in two hours. If they don't, we'll be hanging around all night."

At first, he looked as if he might explode, but Musestre hadn't put a fool in charge of their Venice HQ. "OK. Tell Grasso to get ready to send the signal first thing. I want to see you, Grasso and Lombardo in my office at eight tomorrow morning. That signal is to be on the website by nine."

Grasso wasn't in the office. Lombardo hadn't left his whereabouts. I telephoned each of them on their cells to let them know about the early meeting, and walked home through the dark alleys and bright piazzas..

Day 4: All four of us were in Palumbo's office before eight. I had arranged for Tomas, a formidable giant, to wait outside.

Grasso said: "Dottore, I think we should post the signal now."

Palumbo raised a weary hand. "Let Fabbri have his say. We'll post the signal at nine."

I said: "I went to the Commedia the other evening, and the play gave me the solution to this problem."

"What's this?" interrupted Grasso.

"Let him talk," said Lombardo, "The sooner this is over, the sooner I can get some other work done." This earned him a glare from Grasso.

"Carry on," said Palumbo.

"The characters were as follows:

  • A rich old man;
  • His beautiful daughter;
  • A miserly man, suitor to the daughter;
  • A poor but upright soldier, another suitor;
  • The mischievous servant;
  • The cheeky maid."

"Oh, come on..." groaned Grasso.

"Yes, get to the point," said Lombardo.

"The rich man favours the soldier to marry his daughter, and agrees to subsidise him. The miser sees his opportunity of marriage into a wealthy family slipping away, and conspires with the doctor to pretend that the rich man is dying of a rare complaint. The miser disguises himself as a doctor from China who has a cure for the complaint that will cost the rich man half his fortune. The plot becomes more and more complex, but, in the end, the servants expose the conspiracy. Curtain. Applause."

Palumbo was looking thoughtful. Grasso, for once, had nothing to say.

Lombardo said: "Well, if that's all you've got, I'll be getting along."

"That isn't all I've got, Lombardo. You have never revealed to us that you were in charge of the Financial Authority building refit."

"Client secrecy. I haven't told anyone I'm consulting for you at Musestre, either."

"You might have mentioned it when the whole lot collapsed."

"On the contrary, confidentiality was then all the more important."

"Because, in fact, you were being well-paid to make sure it fell down, so that they could build a more suitable building in its place."

"Ridiculous!"

"The plans for the new Financial Authority building are already lodged with the planning department, as I discovered yesterday."

"This is all surmise. You can't prove a thing. Do you think I introduced those nanorobots?"

"No, I don't. There are no nanorobots. I think the damaged timbers you showed us were actually samples sent to Venice Conservation a while ago from Kuala Belait Trading."

"You think so?"

"Not that it matters. What I am sure of is that the timber you showed us was perfectly dry. It didn't look as if it had spent a couple of hundred years in Venetian mud. You didn't have to prove anything to us; you just had to offer the seeds of doubt until the extortion paid off."

Lombardo stood up. "I don't have to listen to this. I'm leaving."

Palumbo said: "Wait a minute."

I said: "Let him go. He's right. We can't pin anything on him. But I'd cancel his contract as architectural consultant."

With a crooked grin, Lombardo strode from the office. At my signal, Tomas relieved him of his security pass, and walked him towards the exit.

Grasso blurted out: "What a snake! I never liked him."

"Yet you had dinner with him last night."

"What?"

"I telephoned each of you within a minute or so at eight last night. In the background, I could hear you were each in a restaurant with an orchestra. The orchestra was playing the same tune behind each call."

Palumbo said: "Are you accusing Grasso? I thought we'd identified the culprit."

Grasso said: "Just because we ate in the same restaurant..."

I said: "Someone had to concoct these fake e-mails, and I think we'll find that you have also organised an offshore account to receive the ransom. I have to say that when you showed me those previous e-mails, I noticed that you hadn't displayed the trace routing information. It may not have been helpful, but it was unnatural not to show it if you were trying to trace it. The fact that your fellow technician 'found that the source IP address doesn't exist' seemed odd. I later found out that this could not be the case even with a deliberately disguised e-mail. I believe you faked the e-mails yourself, who better? And Irina in Investment Services seems to think that the IT department has some expertise in untraceable accounts."

"Prove it!"

"I don't have to. All Dottor Palumbo needed was a reasonable certainty that the threat was a hoax, and I've done that."

"I deny involvement!" said Grasso. "And I resign. You cannot accuse me like this."

"Good decision, Grasso. Tomas will ensure that you leave the premises immediately."

When Grasso had gone, Palumbo asked: "Well, that solved the problem. No need to pay. How did you figure all that out?"

"I was confused at first. But when I saw that comedy, I realised that it needed two conspirators, and everything just fell into place."

Personally, I conceded that my reasoning was a trifle flimsy. I spent the next couple of months worrying that I'd fingered the wrong men, and that the building was going to finish up in the canal. All I can say now is: "Not yet!"

helping hands
© Gil Williamson 2018 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:09 Wed 14 Feb 2018
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