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INVAIATURA

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By Joel Burcat

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The Montréal Review, January 2013

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Art by David Foldvari from the book Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption

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Jules was like a father to me, and despite how much I detested him, you can imagine my shock and grief when I received word that he was dead.

I had been sweating over a stock sale agreement-he taught me how to draft them-when the phone rang. I let it ring twice before I even looked at the caller ID, which read "unknown." Thanks to Jules I had been under investigation by the SEC, and I wasn't in the mood to talk with anyone about that. Also my marriage to Constance was nearly dead, and I was fighting all the time with her, so there really was no one with whom I wanted to talk. After four rings I reached over, prepared to yell at whomever was on the line.

"Hello? May I please speak with Signore Schiff?" the caller said in an Italian accent.

"Signore Schiff? This is Mr. Schiff. Harry Schiff."

"Si, Mr. Schiff. My name is Luigi Montecaldo. I am a lawyer with Vitelli and Montecaldo in Rome."

"Yes," I said slowly, hoping that maybe this Italian lawyer had some kind of business deal in the U.S. on which he wanted me to work.

"I'm very sorry that I have a sad duty. I must report to you the untimely death of Jules Endern. Do you know him?"

I heard the words but they didn't register. I must have taken a while to respond. "Mr."-it came out Meester -"Schiff, are you still there?"

"Yes. Jules is dead. How? How did he die?"

Odd, if you think about it, when one asks that question. As if it matters.

"Natural causes," Montecaldo replied. Then he added, "Perhaps with a smile on his face. He was with the signorina, Roberta Cambiare. Do you know her?"

"Know? No, I have only heard him talk about her. He was crazy about her."

"Crazy? Well, as best as I can tell, he was very happy."

Jules had been under investigation by the SEC for about three months when he met Roberta. She seemed to change him, give him a reason to be happy. She also ruined his marriage, his family. Maybe six months before the call, he came back from a vacation to Siena in Tuscany, and all he could do was talk about the land, the people, the wine, and Roberta. The guy was twenty-five years older than I, and I knew his family, his wife, his kids. He would come into my office in the afternoon, shut my door, and tell me he had spoken with her; he seemed so in love. At times he was giddy. I would sit with a smile on my face, not knowing what to say-it was beyond awkward. Imagine what you would do if your mentor, your father figure, blathered to you about his twenty-something girlfriend. Considering the trouble he was in, I found it hard to believe he allowed himself to be so distracted.

Maybe a month later he claimed he had a real estate deal in Rome and had to go back to Italy. I always doubted that was the case. All of his deals were in Philly, South Jersey, never even out of the region, let alone in Rome. When he returned-after two weeks-he was transformed. He told me he was leaving his wife, kids, practice, even me. Jules announced he was moving to Tuscany to be with Roberta.

I was shocked. I told him that he would not escape a government investigation or charges merely by running to Italy. He told me that he didn't care. He was giving his wife the house, his Audi, the 401(k), and half of everything else.

Over the next couple of weeks he transferred his cases to several of the lawyers in the firm. Little did we know that on his way to Tuscany, the prick had met with the Feds and implicated the firm and me in his shady deal. I had never billed a minute on it and had no involvement with it, but he decided to direct the investigators toward me to get the Feds off his back. I suppose he knew that ultimately I would get out of it, but I can't begin to tell you how much I despised him for that.

"Signore Schiff, the authorities need you to come to Siena to identify the body. Can you do that?" the lawyer said.

"I'm not particularly interested. Why me?"

"Someone close to him has to identify the body, and he left instructions that it had to be you. He was estranged from his family, and you are the most reliable witness. It is a matter of Italian law. The tickets have been arranged."

I had no desire to help out Jules, alive or dead, but the lawyer implored me to do so. Finally I gave in-actually I thought it might do me good to get out of the country for a few days to get away from the investigation and Constance. As it was, leaving on short notice was relatively easy, as my wife and I never had any kids, even though I desperately wanted them, and she didn't seem to care that I was taking off so suddenly. I was on a flight to Rome the next morning.

I'd never been to Italy, and as the BMW limousine left Rome and began driving to Tuscany, I began to understand why Jules had fallen in love with the country. We followed the A-1 highway and quickly were in the hills. All around were vineyards, olive trees, small villages, and this tan, orange, green, and yellow countryside. The driver stopped the car on a hilltop outside of Siena so I could stretch, and my lungs filled with an intoxicating blend of chamomile and fresh hay.

When we got to Siena, I found I was booked into the Grand Hotel Continental. The hotel room, like the flight, was first class. The next morning, as I prepared to leave to identify the body, I found a note under the door. I opened it and it read, "Harry, whatever happens, be sure to tell the coroner that the body is mine. Please do not let on otherwise. It's O.K., I'll explain it all later." It was unsigned but I know Jules' handwriting like my own. My head felt like it might explode.

Arriving at the coroner's office, I finally met Roberta. She was about twenty-five with curly hair the color of night and dark, suntanned skin. I noticed the men in the coroner's office pause and turn their heads when she walked by. She was accompanied by a man she said was her brother, but no brother and sister were ever as intimate as Roberta and Daniele.

We were shown into a room and found a body lying under a white sheet on a metal gurney. The coroner's assistant pulled back the sheet, revealing a man I had never seen before. Roberta dabbed her eyes with a tissue and then hugged her brother.

"Signore, can you identify the body?" the assistant asked.

"Yes, it's him," I lied.

He waited a good five seconds, then asked, "Are you sure?"

Now I was confused. I thought this was a done deal. I glanced at Roberta, who nodded her head ever so slightly. I cleared my throat and said, "Yes, that's Jules. I'd know him anywhere."

The coroner's assistant rolled his eyes, then pulled the sheet over the body. Finally he asked me to sign papers. I returned to my hotel feeling nauseous and was handed a note by the front desk clerk, which I opened in my room. It read, "Leave immediately. The driver will take you to San Marino."

As we drove I asked the driver in what part of Italy San Marino was located and, much to my surprise, learned that it wasn't technically a part of Italy at all; it was its own tiny country, surrounded by Italy. So there I was, sitting in another lawyer's office in San Marino, wondering what the hell was going on. The lawyer from San Marino sat across from me and oddly said, "Have no fear, soon you will be comforted. Now, please excuse me." The lawyer quickly left the conference room.

A moment later the door opened again, and I thought it would be the lawyer, but in walked Jules. After a moment of shock, surprisingly we hugged warmly.

"I'm very sorry to have done this to you, but I had no choice," Jules said, looking relaxed, tanned, and fit. He was wearing casual clothing, something I had rarely seen him wear in my ten years of working for him.

"Let me tell you what I can tell you. The Feds were crawling up my ass when I took that first trip to Italy. I really did fall in love, not with Roberta, but with the notion of my freedom. There's a word that the winemakers here use, it's 'invaiatura'-the moment when the grapes change color, they stop growing and begin ripening. I had my own personal moment when it occurred to me that I had to grab for happiness while I still had the chance, before I stopped ripening and began to rot. After that I began setting up my escape. I pretended to be in love with a young woman. Everyone bought this-you, my wife, especially the Feds. I've always told you that a lawyer must have a Plan B. Well, over the years, I had transferred cash, lots of it, through several blind accounts until they ended up in this delightful little tax haven. When we split my wife got half of whatever she thought I owned in the U.S. It cost me a bundle, but now I have total freedom."

"And what about the gentleman on the table? The man in the morgue?" I asked coldly.

Jules smiled warmly, then said, "A sad case, homeless, and died of very natural causes, I assure you. Only Roberta and you know. And the lawyer-well, the one here. He cannot reveal anything due to confidentiality. Roberta has been well taken care of and that will continue so long as she keeps our little secret. In any event, if she ever changes her mind, I'll be long gone."

"What about me? You screwed me back in Philly, and I'm still getting myself out of that mess. There might be fraud here. In fact I'm certain you committed fraud in at least two countries, plus who knows how many other crimes. Why shouldn't I turn you in? I might get a plea bargain."

Jules smiled at me. "I knew you would ask. You always were the most ethical and honest young man with whom I ever worked. These are two of the reasons I love you like a son." He smiled at me affectionately, but I thought that a decent man would never do this to his child. "Harry, the Feds will figure out soon enough that you had nothing to do with my antics-you'll be okay. And look, I may have deceived that bitch I was married to, but she is well taken care of. The government? I suppose, technically, but what good is that? They might get some tax revenue, fines, and I would spend my declining years in a federal penitentiary. But is that what you want for me? I am too far down this road. Would you hurt me like that.son?"

He was right. I knew if I turned him in, he would end up as nothing more than a pelt on some U.S. Attorney's wall.

"It's the perfect crime, I suppose. No one is hurt and you have completely severed your ties with everything you've left behind," I said. "You have total freedom and no connection to anything."

Jules shrugged.

A thought occurred to me and I asked him, "Do you have enough to get by? I mean this has cost you plenty."

Jules grinned broadly. "More than you can imagine." He paused and said, "Why don't you spend the night in this town and think it over. I suspect you will find it as charming and life-altering as did I."

His lips curled into a smile. "There's one additional factor to consider."

Jules handed me a slip of paper with numbers on it.

"Take this to the Private Bank of San Marino, it's just down the street, and show this to the manager." Jules stood and hugged me. His embrace was long and fatherly, like a man saying goodbye to his son whom he will never see again. He left the room without another word and shut the door. I stood for a minute or so, hoping he would return. Everything happened so fast that I never had the chance to tell that bastard how much I loathed him for what he had done.

Eventually I walked back to the reception area and was told that the lawyer had left for the day and Jules was gone. I found my way to the bank and handed the slip to the manager.

"Scuzi," he said as he turned his back to me and began typing on his keyboard.

Finally he said, "Signore Schiff, I have your account on my screen, and I need to verify only one thing. Your password, per favore." He looked at me, expecting an answer.

Jules hadn't mentioned any password. I thought, my wife's name? The name of my law school? The kind of car I drive? Or maybe I should get up and run from that place while I still had the time, before anything further changed. After a few minutes the manager cleared his throat, and I could feel sweat erupting on my face.

"Invaiatura," I whispered.

The manager nodded and typed on his keypad, then hit "enter" with a decisive click. He looked at the screen and shook his head, making something I've learned is an "Italian" expression.

I waited. A moment later he turned the screen my way, and in the center of the screen I read a number: 250.000.

I stared and then leaned forward. "Is that two hundred fifty thousand dollars?"

"No, Signore. Euros. Approximately three hundred twenty-five thousand dollars. Is everything in order?"

I paused a long while, thinking that was a lot of money, my tip-not enough to retire, but a tidy amount to buy my silence. The whole notion disgusted me and propelled me to my next phase. "Yes, quite."

I never told my ex-wife about the account, my plans, or Jules. As it was I saw Jules only one more time again, many months later. We met in his house, where you and I now live, and I forced the bastard to give me his Italian account numbers before I stuck a knife in his chest. I already knew his password. I buried him under the Sangiovese grapevines, right here. It was then that I became Jules Invaiatura.

I looked down at the woman, ten years my junior, whose hair was the color of the tawny Tuscan landscape with a smile as bright as the noon sun. She rested her head on my stomach as we lay on a blanket, eating figs in the vineyard at my villa only ten kilometers from Siena.

I asked, "Angela, do you understand what I just said?"

She smiled at me and said nothing.

Then I said, "Angela, hai capito quello che ho detto?"

She laughed and replied, "Non capisco una parola di inglese."

She doesn't understand a word of English.

"Ti amo, Angela," I said.

"Il mio amore, Jules," she replied, kissing me warmly.

Smiling, she sat up and placed my hand on her bulging belly so I could feel our baby kicking.

"Bambino Jules," she said, continuing to smile.

"Invaiatura, indeed," I said, patting his grave, and Angela laughed.

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Joel Burcat is a writer and an environmental lawyer in a private practice in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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