Today's Reading

Two Months Later

The email had arrived less than two weeks ago, and here I was, unable to think of anything else, bolting from my life on a possibility, a whim.

I tried to tamp down my anxiety, stopped to stretch the kinks out of my body, then wheeled my suitcase through one long corridor after another, a mix of exhaustion and adrenaline after an eight-hour flight from New York where I'd been too keyed up to sleep.

Leonardo da Vinci airport was like most: impersonal, crowded, harsh lighting. The fact that it was named for Leonardo struck me as prophetic, though clearly, they hadn't named it for me. I checked the time, 6:00 a.m. Then searched for the airport train and was proud of myself when I found it, slumped into a seat, and closed my eyes, a dozen thoughts buzzing in my brain like gnats.

Thirty-two minutes later, I was in Roma Termini, the train station huge, crowded, a throbbing nest of travelers, but with an element of romance, all those trains hovering just beyond the ticket stalls, belching white smoke into the winter air.

I cut through crowds of people—"Scusami, scusami"—thankful to my parents for speaking to me in their native tongue from the time I could crawl, moving from one train to another, clutching my ticket, eyes on the big board searching, for Firenze as minutes ticked away. I almost missed my train, listed only by its final destination, Venice, a place I would love to see, but not now when I was on a mission.

The train to Florence was clean and new-looking, the seats comfortable. I got my suitcase onto the rack above, took off my backpack, and twice nodded off to images of pages wafting through the air and me trying and failing to catch them.

I drank a Coke to stay awake and stared out the window, the landscape going from flat to hilly to distant medieval towns dotting the tops of even larger hills, all of it slightly unreal, as if I were in a movie and not on my way to discovering what I hoped would finally answer a hundred-year-old mystery and twenty years of research in pursuit of my family's most infamous criminal.

An hour and a half later, I was outside Florence's bustling train station, Santa Maria Novella, in the center of the city, lugging my suitcase over cobblestone streets, hazy sun dipping in and out of low clouds, the air crisp and cold. I replayed the events of the past two weeks: receiving the email, buying an open-ended ticket, going to the Italian consulate where I sweet-talked a young woman into giving me a cultural permesso and a letter stating I was a university art professor, which granted me access to Italian cultural institutions, then the call to my cousin in Santa Fe—a sculptor always eager to make the New York City art scene—who was more than happy to sublet my Bowery loft. A week later, I'd bubble-wrapped my paintings, left my college classes in the hands of my graduate TA, and taken off a week before intersession, a rash move for an assistant professor hoping to get tenure.

I crossed the wide street in front of the train station into a warren of smaller ones, trying to follow my cell phone's GPS that was constantly rerouting. I had to change directions twice but about ten minutes later came into a large rectangular plaza dominated by a sienna-colored chapel with a redbrick dome, the Piazza di Madonna, and there, spotted the hotel, Palazzo Splendour, its name spelled out in old electric lettering.

The hotel's lobby was the size of a cramped Manhattan kitchen, the walls in need of a paint job, floors of badly cracked white-variegated marble, the only decoration a faded black-and-white photo of Michelangelo's David.

"Luke Perrone," I said to the guy behind the desk—youngish, ropy arms laced with badly inked tattoos, handsome in a drug-addicted sort of way, puffing on a cigarette, cell phone crooked between his ear and shoulder.

"Passaporto," he said without looking up. When I asked in my best Italian if I could leave my suitcase and come back later, he held up a finger as if I were disturbing his call, obviously personal unless he called all the hotel guests '"il mio amore."' I didn't wait for his answer, left my suitcase, and headed out.

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