The breathless messenger bowed in front of Roberto Roberto Guinigi, and handed him a parchment envelope with the seal of Captain Giancarlo Annapoli, in the shape of a three-masted warship
on top of the letter E, for the Lucchese warship Elsie.
The enclosed letter read as follows:
“Upon anchoring in Funchal harbor on 23 October 1319,
Carlo Pellerini per your instructions hired 20 local guides to lead him and his team of botanists and excavators up into the mountainous jungle to search for the legendary Tanner’s Levada and the rare Reba Oaks that you desire.
“My midshipman Usna and I felt that our work on Madeira would best be accomplished poolside at Reid’s Palace Hotel, where we pondered weather patterns and marshalled our strength for the voyage home.
“After four extremely anxious weeks at the pool drinking prosecco, we finally heard from Signor Pellerini. There is good news and bad news.
“The good news is that Signor Pellerini and his expedition were extremely fortunate to locate, excavate and bring down to Funchal two extremely healthy and beautiful Reba Oaks! These two trees are under the careful watch of my armed guards 24 hours per day, 7 days per week – no harm shall come to them!
“The bad news is that the Reba Oaks have had the effect of convincing Usna and many of our sailors that our warship the Elsie is full of baboons and monkeys! Usna and the rest of the crew are climbing all over the Elsie’s rigging, having conversations with imaginary baboons and monkeys! They are even rebuilding the crow’s nest at the top of our mast into a treehouse, for God’s sake!
“I urgently request your instructions as to how you wish me to proceed under these circumstances.
“Your loyal servant, Captain Giancarlo Annapoli 30 November 1319”
The guests at the New Year’s Eve dinner had all halted their conversations, concerned, as they watched Roberto Roberto Guinigi read this obviously important letter.
When he finished reading the letter, Double R Guinigi carefully folded it and put it into the inside pocket of his dinner jacket. He smiled broadly, raised both of his hands in the air, and looked at his dinner guests. He said:
“This missive is nothing to worry about at all! Happy New Year to all of you! Let us enjoy our wonderful feast! Gigi, will you join me in a toast to one of the Guinigi family’s greatest years, 1319!”
Hearing this, all of the dinner guests smiled and relaxed, and raised their beautiful glasses in response to Double R’s toast. “To the Guinigi!” they all cheered.
Hey, this is CiCi here.
By now, I hope that I’ve convinced you that the Guinigi didn’t get to be insanely rich by not thinking of every possible angle, right?
Sometimes in business, things tend to get a little bit dicey, and the Guinigi made sure that they always had some “special employees” at their disposal who had exceptional “skills” that might be needed by the Guinigi in an emergency. Are you picking up what I’m laying down?
So what you didn’t know and I kept as a surprise, is that immediately after Double R Guinigi’s lunch meeting at Da Leo’s with his dear friend the botanist Gianni Nespolo, Double R Guinigi summoned to Palazzo Guinigi one of his “special employees,”
Nicoletta “Nik-Nak” Polenta.
I’m going to be honest with you: Nik-Nak’s exceptional “skill” was that she could steal just about anything from anywhere.
She was a master thief, super-clever and fearless.
And she wasn’t cheap.
Nik-Nak Polenta swaggered into Palazzo Guinigi like she owned it. Looking around casually, she noted at least 10 different fabulous works of art that she would like to steal.
“DON’T EVEN THINK OF IT!”
Double R Guinigi warned Nik-Nak as she walked into his fabulous study. “If even an ashtray is missing from this palazzo any time during the next five years, you’re dead. Got it?”
“Fully understood,” Nik-Nak calmly replied, sitting down in front of Double R Guinigi’s large desk.
“You need me for something interesting, Signore?”
Double R Guinigi got straight to the point: “Tonight, you and 10 of my soldiers will leave on horseback for the Castle of Sintra, outside Lisbon in Portugal. In that castle is a tome called Guide to Obscure Levadas, published by Henry, Count of Portugal, in the year 1119.
I want you to find that tome, make an exact copy of page 3029 discussing Reba Oaks, and deliver the copy to me immediately.
My coin-master is waiting to give you 500 gold coins of the Republic that you can use to buy, beg, bribe or break your way into that castle.
Just get me a copy of that page 3029 within 60 days, whatever it takes! You are under the Guinigi family’s protection in this mission, don’t take no for an answer from anyone! Understood?”
Nik-Nak stood up and responded “Crystal clear signore!”, and then swaggered out.
Damn she’s good, Double R thought. Double R then called for the head of his guards. “Double the perimeter security around the palazzo, permanently!”
Nik-Nak Polenta knew that Roberto Roberto Guinigi was not to be trifled with. That night, she left Lucca at a gallop along with Double R’s soldiers.
Arriving at the Castle of Sintra about three weeks later, she cleverly bribed three guards and four other Castle employees, copied page 3029 of the tome, and set off home for Lucca, arriving in less than 45 days.
She really was as good as advertised.
Knocking on the doors of Palazzo Guinigi, she hand-delivered page 3029 of the tome to Double R in his study.
Double R Guinigi carefully read page 3029, including reading the extremely fine print on the bottom of the page with a gold-handled magnifying glass.
Double R called for his coinmaster. Pointing at Nik-Nak Polenta, Double R commanded the coinmaster: “Give this lady a bonus of an additional 500 gold coins of the Republic – she has earned it!”
At the bottom of page 3029 of the tome was the following extremely fine print, which is enlarged here so that you can read it without a magnifying glass:
“There is a very real risk that some or all of the persons who spend more than one minute in the vicinity of Reba Oaks will experience a profound hallucinogenic response, often characterized by a belief that they are surrounded by baboons and monkeys, and by a desire to build and live in tree houses.
“This hallucinogenic response has been known to last for up to nineteen years and nineteen days, and to destroy the lives and families of those afflicted.
“The only known cure for this hallucinogenic response is to have the sufferers eat traditional Lucchese farro soup made from beans and extra virgin olive oil harvested within 15 kilometers of Lucca dentro, with the following mixed into it:
· Exactly three raisins from a circular buccellato baked by Taddeuci in Lucca
· Exactly one shot of Nardini rum from Barga”
Before he left Lucca for Viarreggio, Carlo Pellerini was summoned to Palazzo Guinigi for a meeting with Double R...
Double R said, “Sit down and listen carefully Pellerini. When you get to Madeira and find some Reba Oaks, never personally spent more than 45 seconds near any of them.
If Captain Annapoli, his midshipman Usna, or any of their crew appear to lose their minds – like they are hallucinating seeing baboons or monkeys or something like that – don’t panic!
Just mix together all of the ingredients in this special sea chest that I’m giving you with a couple of gallons of water, cook it until it is a nice hot soup, and then have every affected person drink a bowl of the soup.”
“Signor Guinigi, I ….” Pellerini protested.
“Do you enjoy working for my family, Pellerini? Unless you do exactly as I have specified, you will be begging for pig scraps in Pistoia when you return from this voyage. Do you understand?”
“Very clearly signor! As you have commanded, so shall it be done!” Pellerini replied, confused but enthusiastic nevertheless.