|Painting: Thomas Van Stein|
Private Collection of RE
January 2007, Near Florence, Italy
In the morning, which for us arrives late, a wall of white fog seals the loggia. None of us have seen anything so surrealistically astonishing in its blankness.
Visibility: Not one inch.
Breakfast is a buffet of smoked meat laid out in the kitchen. Fortunately, Boris’s dog is barking outside.
Boris is still around, evidenced by a brand-new Rolls-Royce with Monaco tags parked outside. (He had told Natasha, along with members of his dinner party, that Monaco’s sovereign prince had given him the fancy wheels for making it to this meeting, a ridiculous lie.)
When we next look outside, the fog has cleared. A driver rolls us into Florence, where Van Stein sets an easel along the River Arno, turning his back on the famed Ponte Vecchio for an obscure view.
In the afternoon we motion to Siena, a Tuscan city on this day half enveloped in fog, bestowing it a mystical quality that exemplifies the thick texture and tapestry of Europe. Strolling through the 100 percent marble Duomo, it is clear that Italy is the right place to look up angels and devils.
Or they will find you.
The Villa Mangiacane is quiet on our return. Boris and Igor and the others have departed. Natasha dashes to the house computer, spends twenty minutes on the Internet.
“What’s she doing?” Van Stein hasn’t trusted her for one second since the road trip began.
I shrug. “Probably email.”
Van Stein shakes his head. “She’s looking at sites. Russian sites.”
“How do you know that?”
“I went on after her. The computer keeps a record of recent sites visited. She visited a dozen in twenty minutes.” Like, now do you believe she’s a Russian spy?
“Do you have a record of the sites she surfed?”
Van Stein nods triumphantly. “I’ve already e-mailed it to myself.”
(The sites relate to esoteric topics: magic, witchcraft and astrology.)
“Careful,” I say. “Boris may have a keyboard logger.”
“Change your password.”
Later, we motion back to Florence, a restaurant called Ana Murate (The Walls) because of its ancient frescoes, uncovered by accident during a paint-stripping renovation.
Centuries earlier these were judges chambers, and quite likely where Machiavelli was condemned to exile.
We gift Van Stein with a special pen: a limited edition Van Gogh, produced by Visconti of Florence.
“Is it bugged?” says Van Stein, looking at Natasha.
“You would like, Chatka?” This is Natasha’s pet name for the artist, a Russian word that means hat, as Van Stein is rarely without a baseball cap crowning his pate.
“Time to call Boris and report in.”
“Nonsense.” Natasha points to the implant scar on her left temple. “He already hears.”
JL, egged on by Van Stein, engages Natasha, looks her directly in the eye. “Who are you working for?”
Then he looks at me, befuddled. “Wait a minute, who am I working for?”
“Be careful, Toy-Boy,” says Natasha, though JL’s nickname should be Muttley for his snickering wheeze of a laugh when he farts.
A chef’s taster menu delights us; much mirth and merriment ensues, while Van Stein sketches frescoes,
Natasha waxes covert and Toy-Boy turns philosophical.
“My father, Bernard, who died when I was twelve, gave me two bits of advice,” says Toy-Boy. “Coincidence is the form God takes to remain incognito.” He stops.
“And the other?” I ask.
“Trust me, son, condoms don’t work.”
Outside, the word angels, accented with a halo, is reflected from somewhere onto the pavement.
We return to Villa Mangiacane at midnight. Erica, who resides in the gatehouse, unlocks the villa, sees us in—and Machiavelli’s old home is ours alone to explore.
Van Stein takes a number of photographs, until dear Niccolo appears in an orb, with a facial expression that says, “Oops, got me!”
Other orbs join the party: Vincent, Dymphna, and Dali…
“We need candles and matches,” says Van Stein, creating a still life: ten candles, forming a circle around a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, his new Van Gogh pen and a glass of red wine.
Twice the artist stops to stand back for perspective.
Twice, a music stand near the table shudders, not stopping until Van Stein is beckoned back to the easel.
You’re not finished-–keep painting!
When the picture is finally complete, past four in the morning, Van Stein discovers he has inexplicably painted an extra candle.