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Roberto Calvi's final, frightened days

The approach came almost exactly 15 years ago in classic Calvi fashion; oblique, elliptic and through an intermediary.

In April 1982 I was Rome correspondent of the Financial Times. A lawyer acquaintance called, inviting me to lunch. I arrived to find a third man at the table, who first merely identified himself as "a representative."

Only well into the meal did it emerge precisely whom he represented in Rome: Roberto Calvi, the mysterious and secretive chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, implicated in scandal after scandal, yet still head of what on paper at least was the largest private banking group in Italy. Gradually I realised I that was being inspected and weighed up. How interesting it might be, the third man mused just before we parted, if I could meet "Il Presidente" in person.

A couple of days later, the phone rang. It was the "representative." An interview had been arranged for later that week in Milan, days before what would prove to be Ambrosiano's last annual general meeting of shareholders.

I was taken into the Ambrosiano building, through a maze of security checks. They included a lift with two separate locks and keys for access to the lavish suites housing Calvi and other senior executives on the top floor.

Always and obsessively private, Calvi would not be seeing me in his own office, where I might divine some clue to his personality.

Instead, we met in what seemed a small anteroom, drab and featureless, just off a grey marble corridor.

The image, months before he would be found hanged, lingers to this day. He was a bulky, ungainly man, of utterly undistinguished looks. He sat half slumped behind a desk, his suit dishevelled. It was as if he had slept in it.

Sometimes he would drum the edge of his desk with his fingertips. A nervous tic on the left side of his mouth, beneath the thin moustache, periodically made him grimace as he spoke. For a man of his status and apparent power, his language was ill-educated, coarse and almost peasant-like.

He imparted no new information, insisting that he was victim of a conspiracy, hounded and persecuted by police, magistrates and politicians and others whose names he would not speak of.

He deflected questions about recent reports of a $600m (pounds 375m) "hole" at its shadowy subsidiary in Lima, Peru. Ambrosiano, he insisted, was sound. But there were two things Calvi could not conceal. One was exhaustion. The other was fear.

To a grotesque degree he possessed the common Italian belief that life is controlled by dark and secret forces. Once he had commanded these forces, but by early 1982 the protector himself deesperately needed protection. The previous year Calvi had been briefly jailed on charges of stock manipulation. He had been exposed as a member of the P-2 freemasons' lodge. Worst of all, the gigantic fraud on which Ambrosiano was built could no longer be concealed.

Whether or not the Mafia killed him, Calvi and Ambrosiano beyond doubt were part of the murky underside of Italian life at that time, where perverted free-masonry, the secret services, organised crime and right-wing terrorism blurred into one. As his problems mounted, he felt in increasing physical danger.

The elaborate protection within the bank was one sign. Outside, a platoon of bodyguards and the armour-plated Alfa Romeos in which he travelled were costing Lire 4 million (pounds 2,000) a day.

Pestering, threatening phone calls would interrupt once sacred family weekends at his country home at Drezzo, north of Milan.

He took to carrying a pistol in his briefcase to the office. To Carlo De Benedetti, his business partner in the winter of 1981/82, he warned of "factors of international consensus" that prevented De Benedetti being installed as Ambrosiano vice-president. To another colleague, he spoke of a "climate of war."

At the end he insisted his daughter Anna leave Italy for her own safety, telling her of his fears for his life. If Italian investigators this time are right, those fears were amply justified.