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One Hundred Billions
of dollars

by Luciano Simonelli

Translated from italian by Luisa Rizza

© Copyright by Luciano Simonelli - The rights are reserved all over the world
It is forbidden to reprint any part of this page without a written permission from the author.


«The game has begun...»
September 1989

Chapter 1

A snow-white cloud, the only one crossing the clear sky like a big wad of cotton wool, came before the sun. For a short while a thin shadow shrouded the buildings and the thousands of people who crowded the Campo di Siena. It was like an anticipation of dusk. Everybody's eyes were fixed on the same point. At any moment the horses and the jockeys of the city's ten quarters that ran the Palio would come out of the Cortile del Podestà of the Palazzo Pubblico. The crowd, thronging in the middle of the square, filling the stands all around, leaning out of every window and over every balcony, were silent with bated breath. A nervous silence had fallen on the magical shell-shaped square.
Erik Vessel felt that someone was watching him. Squeezed in the crowd near the Fonte Gaia he turned his head leftwards and jumped. He turned pale as if he had seen a ghost and immediately became restless, prey to an uncontrollable urge to run away. But where could he go? It was impossible to move in that crush. A brief roll of the drums and the burst of a firework pierced the air, announcing the arrival of horses and jockeys. At that signal the square seethed with excited screams. Siena was about to celebrate the most passionate moments of the centuries-old challenge of the Palio, and by then Erik Vessel was seized by panic.
He tried again to make his way through the crowd and, once again, was unable to move an inch. In fact he was pushed further back towards the balustrade of the Fonte Gaia.
He panted, dripping with sweat. He panted as if he had run for kilometres. He panted and kept looking leftwards with a light of terror in his eyes.
He was alone. Alone with his fear, his dread, his impotence; alone among that crowd.
Nobody noticed that terrified man while the horses, nervously and reluctantly, entered the spaces between the ropes; and the starter gave orders to line up for the start; and swift glances and short exchanges were passed between the jockeys. These glances and exchanges could mean impromptu arrangements, betrayals, last minute deceits in a race where, from time immemorial, any trick was admitted if it meant victory.
But Erik Vessel had nothing more to bargain. Only by running away could he still hope to win his personal Palio. But the people around him blocked his way, threw him hostile looks when he tried again, desperately, to move.
The horses started. The Campo exploded in a roar of cries of incitement, of joy, of desperation. The crowd swayed hysterically, all eyes on those half-breeds and their jockeys angrily flung along the ring paved with tufa.
A shudder of fear shook the square when at San Martino bend three horses fell in a spectacular tangle. And suddenly a girl clutched at Vessel's neck, shouting desperately. She looked at him without seeing him; she shouted and shook him, venting all her anger on him. But then the fallen animals stood up, began to run again without their jockeys, and she resumed hope. She left Vessel and began to egg on the horse running for her quarter: she jumped, exulted with joy, screaming at the top of her voice.
It all lasted a split second, but that instant of distraction had been enough for him to lose sight of his antagonist.
He turned his eyes frantically around. Nothing.
Where the hell had he gone to, that bastard? Where?
The race went on. The crowd yelled, getting more and more excited. Only another lap. Only a handful of seconds and the Palio would be over. Suddenly he felt a piercing pain on his right side. And then another, and another, and anotherS
He no longer needed to look for the bastard. By then he knew that he was behind him and that he left him no way out. Now he could only shout. Now he, too, yelled, but out of pain, at each stab.
He shouted but nobody seemed to take any notice of his tragedy. His personal Palio ended there, in a last cry of pain. And his lifeless body stood there, propped up by the throngs of people while a white horse without jockey ran towards victoryS

He emerged from his sleep, gasping.
His staring eyes had difficulty in getting into focus. Then Ral's friendly whining, the rustling of the ceiling fan, and the stagnant stench of too many cigarettes took Erik Vessel back into the shadowy bedroom in his house in Newark, New Jersey.
He sat up on his bed and touched his right side, incredulous at still being alive. The small salt and pepper coloured schnauzer jumped up on the blanket and stopped in front of him. It stared enquiringly at that lean man with thin hair, and a dazed expression on the wrinkled face with a short snow-white beard. But Vessel ignored the dog. He slipped out of bed and made for the end of his bedroom.
Ral followed him without hesitation.
The light filtering in through the crimson drawn curtain showed a very large room with pale walls full of too many pictures. They were all 19th century canvases, all still lifes except for the painting hanging over the white marble fireplace. It portrayed the Campo di Siena with the Palazzo Pubblico and the towering Torre del Mangia during the Palio race.
Vessel moved with confidence. The expression on his face revealed the concentration of someone following the thread of a thought and of dread. He seemed not to lose his concentration even when he pressed something beneath the mantelpiece and the fireplace began to move leftwards, disclosing a passage no larger than a narrow doorway.
That opening led into another small room. It was circular and without windows, but the light filtering in through a skylight made it very bright. On a milk-white table following the curve of the wall towered a computer and a printer, near a telephone. Fitted in the wall there were six TV screens. It looked more like a secret fore-bridge than a room.
Erik Vessel sat in a black leathered armchair and switched on the computer. As soon as the tiny luminous flashing rectangle appeared on the screen, he typed a series of numbers and points on the keyboard: 306.19.44. Then he pressed enter.
«Access code», ordered the computer after a split second. He obeyed and typed: «The game has begun. Your move».
The screen became blank for an instant. Then, after a faint buzz, it announced «I'm ready».
Vessel typed: «Control. When did you play last?».
The reply came immediately: «Two weeks ago. Sunday 20 August, 9 a.m.».
«Hell, it is!» he yelled to the computer. «I haven't entered this file for at least six months!».
Then the small Ral got angry too and began to bark. Vessel did not hesitate to ask the same question once more.
But the reply did not budge one jot: «Two weeks ago. Sunday 20 August, 9 a.m.».
His face pale, his forehead already beaded with sweat, Vessel typed the abbreviation "TDM" with the same desperation in his heart of one who knows he is playing his last trump.
For a couple of seconds that he felt like an eternity nothing appeared on the screen. He heard the usual feeble buzz. Then eventually the computer announced. «I'm ready».
He asked the control question again and this time he smiled at the reply. No, whoever had entered that file had not been able to go very far, had not yet found the access key to the heart of his secrets.
But Vessel's joy did not last long. He was about to switch the computer off when it began to work by itself.
«Damn it...», he whispered when he saw his access sentence appearing on the screen and that stupid contrivance obeying without hesitation.
For a short while he thought he was the victim of another nightmare. For a short while he hoped against hope that in a minute he would wake up and everything would end. But then he understood how thoughtlessly he had acted. Yes, it was obvious: the intruder was playing on the computer in his office in New York. From that computer, also and only from that one, was it possible to enter the special memory that stored his secrets. The two computers were twins; it was as if they were one and the same. Indeed his screen was mirroring that which was happening on the other computer.
He fought back the impulse to intervene. No, he should not make known that he too was on line. Better to wait, better to observe how far the other man would succeed in poking his nose into his secrets. Besides, he had the chance to see the intruder's face.
He seized the remote control and pressed a series of buttons. The screens in the wall lighted up immediately. He had expected the images of his headquarters in New York, and especially that of his own office, to appear, but he found himself looking at a void. The screen gave only a blurred, coloured flicker.
That damned spy had discovered the cameras too.
Had he also been able to disconnect the security video-recording system?
He must run there immediately.
He picked up the receiver, dialled a three-digit number and after a minute wait he said: «Jack, get the helicopter ready»

(1.To be continued)

If you are interested, please contact Simonelli Editore
e-mail: ed@simonel.com

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