Authors: Antonio Manzini
To my sister, Laura
The mountain cannot frighten one who was born on it.
In this life
it's not hard to die.
But to make life
is trickier by far.
The skiers had all gone home, and the sun, which had just winked out behind the craggy blue-gray peaks that were shredding a few scudding clouds, was still tinting the snow pink. The moon was waiting for darkness so it could light the whole valley until the next morning dawned.
The ski lifts were no longer running, and the lights were out in the chalets at higher elevations. The only sound was the low muttering engines of the snowcats running up and downhill, grooming the pistes that twisted around boulders and stands of trees down the mountain slopes.
The next day marked the beginning of the long weekend, when the ski resort of Champoluc would rapidly fill with out-of-towners eager to dig their skis into the snow. The runs had to be in perfect condition.
Amedeo Gunelli had been assigned the longest run. The Ostafa. Stretching almost a mile in length, and about sixty yards wide, this was Champoluc's main piste, and it was used by ski instructors with their beginner students as well as expert skiers to experience freeriding. This was the slope that took the most work, and it had often lost its snow cover by lunchtime. In fact, there were plenty of bare patches, unsightly stretches of rocks and dirt, especially at center piste.
Amedeo had started from the top. He'd only been doing this job for three months now. It wasn't hard. All you had to do was remember how to work the controls on this treaded monster and keep calm. That was the most important thing. Keep calm and take your time.
He had his earbuds in, with Ligabue's greatest hits blasting on his iPod, and he'd fired up the joint that Luigi Bionaz, the head snowcat operator and his best friend, had given him. It was thanks to Luigi that he had this job and a thousand-euro paycheck every month. Perched next to him on the passenger seat were a flask of grappa and his walkie-talkie. Everything he needed for the hours of hard work ahead.
Amedeo pushed snow in from the sides, spreading it and smoothing it over the barest spots, chopping it with the tiller while the rakes flattened it till the surface was smooth as a pool table. Amedeo was good at his job, but he didn't much like working alone like that. Folks seem to think that mountain people prefer the solitary life of a hermit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Or nothing could be further from the truth as Amedeo conceived it. He liked bright lights, loud noises, and lots of people talking all night long.
“Una vita da medianoooo
he sang at the top of his lungs, to keep himself company. His voice reverberated off the Plexiglas windows as he focused on the snow, which was turning a pale blue in the moonlight. If he'd stopped to look up, he'd have glimpsed a breathtaking spectacle. High above, the sky was dark blue, like the ocean depths. By contrast, all along the mountain ridges it was orange. The last slanting rays of sunlight tinged the perennial glaciers purple and the underbellies of the clouds a metallic gray. Towering over everything were the dark flanks of the Alps. Amedeo took a slurp of grappa and glanced downhill. A nativity scene made up of roads, houses, and twinkling lights. A dreamlike vision for those who hadn't been born and raised in those valleys. For him, a squalid and heartbreaking diorama.
“Certe notti la radio che passa Nil JÃ ng sembra avere capito chi seiiiii . . .
” He sang along to the words of the song by Ligabue: “Certain nights when the radio plays Neil Young as if it knew who you really we-e-ere . . . ”
He'd finished the first run, a wall. He turned the cat to head downhill toward the second section and found himself facing a stretch of black pisteâa black-diamond run. Like in karate, the black classification meant the most challenging kind of run. It was frightening. An expanse of ice and snow with no end in sight.
Only guys who'd been doing this work for years and who could spin the snowcat around like a tricycle would even dare to venture down that steep, twisting track, full of switchback curves and sheer drops, that led down to the main run. Anyway, that was a stretch that didn't require grooming. It was supposed to be left the way it was. It was too tight, for starters. If you took it wrong, the treads would lose their grip, and before you knew it the snowcat would flip over, pinning you under tons of metal and hot grease. The skiers could groom it themselves, gradually smoothing the track as they descended. Someone had to go up just once a month, with a plow blade, and that was only when things had been pushed as far as they could go and the icy mounds that had built up absolutely had to be flattened out. Otherwise, on those blocks and slabs of ice, cartilage and ligaments, ankles and knees snapped and sprained regularly and unpredictably.
The light on the walkie-talkie on the seat next to him blinked. Someone was calling him. Amedeo yanked out his earbuds and grabbed the device. “Amedeo here.”
The radio crackled, then the voice of his boss, Luigi, emerged through the static: “Amedeo, where are you?”
“I'm right in front of the wall at the top run.”
“That's enough. Head downhill and do the section below, near town. I'll take care of the top section.”
“Listen,” Luigi added, “remember to take the shortcut down to town.”
“You mean the lane?”
“That's right, the one that runs from Crestâthat way you don't have to cross the piste that Berardo's cleaning. So take the shortcut, you got that?”
“Got it. Thanks!”
“Forget about âThanks.' Make sure you buy me a glass of white before dinner!”
Amedeo smiled. “That's a promise!”
He stuck the earbuds back in, shifted into the lowest gear, and rumbled off the slope.
“Balliamo un fandango . . . ohhhh,”
he went on singing. “We dance a fandango.” Again, Ligabue.
Overhead, heavy cloud cover suddenly filled the sky, blocking out the moon. That's how it always works in the mountains: before you know it, the weather veers around as fast as the winds at high altitude. Amedeo knew that. The weather forecast for the weekend was ugly.
The snowcat's powerful headlights lit up the slope and the dark mass of fir and larch trunks lining it. Through the black branches he could still see the lights of Champoluc below.
“Balliamo sul mondoooo ohh,”
he sang. “We dance on the world.”
He'd have to drive past the ski school and the snowcat garage, then head downhill toward town, and from there work the slope uphill.
He flicked the scorched filter of the joint out the window. Just then, the headlights of another snowcat blinded him. He lifted one hand to shield his eyes. The cat climbing the hill pulled up level with him. It was Berardo, another driver.
“Hey, are you high? You blinded me!”
“Heh-heh . . .” Berardo snickered idiotically.
“Listen, Luigi's taking care of the top. I'm heading down to do the bottom of the piste, near town.”
“Got it,” replied Berardo, whose nose was already bright red. “You want to get a glass of white at Mario and Michael's tonight?”
“I'm supposed to treat Luigi, so I'll be there anyway. I'm heading down to the end of the slope!” Amedeo shouted.
“Take the Crest laneâI've already finished the run up above!”
“Don't worry, I'll take the shortcut! Later!”
Berardo went on his way. Amedeo, on the other hand, turned toward Crest, as ordered. Crest was a small cluster of mountain houses above the slopes. Nearly all the houses were uninhabited except for a hut and a couple of villas owned by people from Genoa who loved skiing more than they did their own city. From there, he'd go through the woods to the shortcut, which would take him eight hundred yards downhill. He'd give the end of the run a quick groom and then finally came the glass of white wine and cheerful conversation and laughter with the Englishmen who no doubt were already drunk. He went past the few lights on in the village, then left it behind him. The lane that the snowcats used was clear and distinct.
“Ti brucerai, piccola stella senza cielo
. . .” Hitting the high notes. “You'll burn up, little star without a sky.”
He headed downhill, proceeding cautiously down the track, which was used only in the summer by off-road vehicles heading for the village of Crest. The headlights mounted on the snowcat's roof lit the shortcut brightly. There was roughly zero likelihood of driving over the edge.
. . .”
No problem. The treads were gripping perfectly. The cabin was tilted to one side like a thrill ride, was the only thing. But even that was fun.
Then the tiller hit something hard and the snowcat bounced on its treads. Amedeo turned to see what the vehicle had hit. Must have been a rock or a patch of dirt. Out the rear windshield, the lights illuminated the churned-up snow on the lane.
But there was something wrong. He could see it immediately, right in the middle of the lane.
A dark stain stretching at least a couple of yards.
He braked hard.
He removed the earbuds, set the iPod aside, turned off the engine, and got out to check.
His boots sank into the snow. In the middle of the lane was the dark patch.
“Christ, what the hell is that?”
He started walking. The closer he got, the more the stain in the middle of the shortcut changed color. At first it was black, but now it was purplish. The wind was whistling faintly through the needles of the fir trees, scattering down feathers in all directions.
Small, white, weightless feathers.
A chicken? Did I hit a chicken?!
Amedeo muttered to himself.
He kept walking through the deep snow, sinking in five or six inches at every step. The down feathers covering the snow lifted into the air, spinning in tiny whirlwinds. By now the stain was brown.
What on earth did I hit? An animal?
How could he have missed it? With the cat's seven halogen lamps? And anyway, the noise would have chased it away.
He'd almost walked right over it when he finally saw it for what it was: a stain of red blood, churned into the white blanket of snow. It was enormous, and unless he'd run over a whole henhouse, that was way too much blood to have come out of a single piece of poultry.
He steered clear of the stain and carefully edged around it till he got to the point where the red was brightest, almost shiny. He crouched down and looked carefully.
Then he saw.
He turned and took off at a run, but he didn't make it to the woods. He vomited all over the Crest shortcut.
A cell phone going off at this time of night meant trouble, as sure as a certified letter from Equitalia, the Italian equivalent of the IRS. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone, born in 1966, was flat on his back in his bed, eyeing the big toenail on his right foot. The nail had turned black, on account of the filing cabinet drawer that D'Intino had carelessly dropped on Schiavone's foot while hysterically searching for a passport application. Dottor Schiavone hated Officer D'Intino. That very afternoon, after yet another idiotic move pulled by that cop, he'd sworn to himself and the entire citizenry of Aosta that he'd make sure he got that moron transferred to a godforsaken police station somewhere far from the sea, down at the opposite end of the Italian peninsula.
The deputy police chief reached out his hand and grabbed the Nokia that kept ringing and ringing. He took a look at the display. The caller number was police headquarters.
That rated an 8 on the scale of pains in the ass that ran from 1 to 10. Possibly a 9.
Rocco Schiavone had an entirely personal hierarchy up and down which he ranked the pains in the ass that life senselessly inflicted on him every day. The scale actually started at 6, which covered anything that had to do with keeping house: grocery shopping, plumbers, paying rent. The number 7 included malls, banks, medical clinics, and doctors in general, with a special bonus for dentists, and concluded with work dinners or family dinners, though all his living relatives, thank God, were down south in Rome. An 8 on the hierarchy began, first and foremost, with public speaking, followed by any and all bureaucratic procedures required for his job, going to the theater, and reporting to chiefs of police or investigating magistrates. At number 9 came tobacco shops that weren't open when he needed a pack of cigarettes, cafÃ©s that didn't carry Algida ice cream bars, running into anyone who wanted to talk and talk endlessly, and especially stakeouts with police officers who needed a bath.
Topping the hierarchy, the worst and the most dreaded, was a rating of 10. The top, the worst, the mother of all pains in the ass: the investigation he wasn't expecting.
He hoisted himself to a sitting position on both elbows and pushed
“Now who's busting my balls?” he barked.
“Dottore, this is Deruta.”
Special Agent Deruta. Two hundred and twenty-five pounds of useless body mass vying valiantly with D'Intino for the title of stupidest member of police headquarters staff.