The Dante Conspiracy - By Tom Kasey

Chapter 1

Florence, Italy

Present day

‘I’ll ask you again. Where is it?’

The Italian’s voice was calm and measured, polite in fact, but the effect on the naked elderly man was dramatic. He was tied to a steel-framed chair roughly bolted to the concrete floor more or less in the centre of the old barn.

‘I’ve already told you,’ he said desperately, shaking his head. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘Oh, I think you do,’ the questioner said, and gave a nod to the third man in the room.

Like the man asking the questions, this figure looked like a businessman – expensive dark suit, white shirt, tasteful tie and highly-polished black loafers, the only incongruous notes being the waterproof apron and pair of latex rubber examination gloves he was wearing, both now streaked with bloody smears – but his eyes glittered coldly and dispassionately as he waited just behind the bound captive.

‘One more, I think, just as a reminder,’ the questioner said, and made a brief gesture.

The man tied to the chair tensed his body uselessly, then began to scream as the third man clamped a pair of heavy duty wire cutters around the last joint of the index finger of his left hand and slowly began to squeeze the jaws together. The man’s scream rose in a crescendo of agony as the jaws finally snapped together, the bloody end of the finger tumbling to the floor, where it lay beside three others which had already been removed by the same brutal method.

The torturer lay down the pliers on a white hand-towel, now streaked and blotched with blood, which he’d positioned beside his briefcase, a case which contained the tools of his ghastly trade, several of which he’d already employed on their prisoner even before he’d started work on the man’s hands. Then he reached for a gas-powered soldering iron and used it to roughly cauterise the bleeding from the mutilated stump. They didn’t want the man to bleed to death. At least, not yet.

Shocked and exhausted, pain from his ravaged hand racing up his arms like waves of fire, the man in the chair slumped forward, tears of agony coursing down his cheeks as his chin rested on his naked chest. A spreading damp patch below the chair indicated that he’d lost control of his bladder.

The questioner noticed this and gave a small nod of satisfaction. It wouldn’t take long now, he was certain. That assumed, of course, that their captive did possess the information they wanted, but he didn’t have any real doubts about that. If they weren’t sure, they wouldn’t even be here.

The snatch had gone exactly according to their plan, grabbing the man earlier that evening from his apartment in the old city, knocking him out and then driving him to the deserted farmhouse with its useful small barn up in the hills near Gualdo, to the north of Florence. They’d used the place a couple of times before, but probably wouldn’t go back there again: before they’d finished this night’s work there would be too much forensic evidence in the barn for them to feel comfortable about ever returning.

‘Come on, Professor. You know what we want. Just give it to us, and then all this will stop, and we’ll take you to the hospital.’

That, of course, was a lie. Professor Antonio Bertorelli was not going to any hospital, but it never hurt to give a man in his position some kind of a straw to grasp at.

‘Come on,’ the questioner repeated. ‘The “Ravenna variant”. It’s in that. That’s why you talked about it. You know it and we know it. Just tell us where it is. We just need to know where to find it.’

‘Please, please, no more. I don’t know what you’re looking for. I really don’t. That was just an academic curiosity. If I did know where this thing is you want, I promise I’d tell you. I’d tell you anything to make this stop.’

For the first time since they’d started work on him, a scintilla of doubt pierced the mind of the questioner. He’d expected the old man to break almost as soon as he came round, lashed to the chair, and realized what they were going to do to him. It had happened before, often the moment their captive was shown the tools in the briefcase, and Bertorelli was not only about sixty years old but was also an academic, a soft target who should have crumbled almost immediately. But he’d already held out