Authors: Antonio Manzini
Two minutes of breathtaking speed and they were at Cuneaz.
Rocco got off, brushing the snow off his overcoat. Then he looked at Luigi, who still had the cigarette dangling from his lips. “On the way back, I'm driving!” he said, pointing a finger at his chest.
“Why?” Luigi asked innocently. “Were you scared?”
“Scared? Of what? This is incredibly cool!”
Pierron felt quite differently about it. He merely shook his head in disapproval.
Cuneaz was a perfect little mountain village, with the small central piazza, the houses, the firewood cut and stacked neatly outside the homes. There were three huts. The finest was definitely the Belle Cuneaz, property of the unfortunate Leone MiccichÃ¨. It was closed. Luigi knocked on the door. Not thirty seconds had gone by before Luisa Pec's sad face appeared in the glass window of the door, right behind the Visa and PagoBancomat credit card decals. Those were essential, because they allowed Rocco to keep his feet securely planted on the ground; otherwise, what with the lack of oxygen, the snowy dreamscape, the silence, the smoking chimney pots, and the wooden houses with their mysterious words written in gothic characters, he could easily have given in to the belief that he had fallen into a story by the Brothers Grimm.
Luisa welcomed Rocco and Pierron in and directed them to two Chesterfield settees.
“Now I'll get you a little something to drink. It'll warm you up, and it tastes good, too,” she said without a hint of a smile, as if she were reciting memorized lines.
The hut, as they called it up here, looked as if it had come straight out of an interior design magazine. The light pine boiserie on the walls, the stone floors interspersed with a time-burnished salvaged parquet, the vintage woodstove with the andirons. The lights, diffuse and warm. The stripped wooden tables and the excellent paintings on the walls, of late-nineteenth-century mountain landscapes. The bar was an antique Venetian apothecary's counter, with shelves for bottles made from the traditional straw drying racks used in those valleys. Everything, from large to small, clearly stated: This renovation was hugely expensive!
And the result was spectacular.
The mistress of the house returned with a bottle of juniper berry grappa and two glasses. “But is it true that the police never drink when they're on duty?” she asked.
“Yes,” Rocco said as he poured himself a glass of the liquor. Pierron, on the other hand, turned down the offer.
Luigi had lingered, standing, by the window, like a faithful servant. He was rolling a second cigarette and was running his tongue down the edge to seal it. Rocco looked at him. “Listen, Luigi, do you mind taking a walk? We have some things to talk about that are strictly between us.”
Luigi drank the grappa down with a jolt and left the chalet, striding briskly.
“This place is fantastic,” said Rocco, taking in the great room at a glance.
“Thanks,” Luisa replied. “Upstairs there are six bedrooms, and the restaurant's through that door. I'll show it to you laterâit's a nice dining room, especially because it has a plate-glass window that directly overlooks the valley.”
“It's enormous,” Rocco noted. “A person would hardly think that up in the mountains . . .”
“This used to be the school. Until the war. Then the people abandoned Cuneaz, they moved down to Champoluc, and then . . .”
“Did you buy it?”
“Me? No,” Luisa replied with a smile. “It belonged to my grandparents. Let's just say that it was a hovel; they used it as a stall. Hold on.” She got up, went to the facing wall, pulled down a black-and-white photograph that was hanging there, and brought it back to the deputy police chief. “You see? That's how it was before we did the work.”
Rocco looked at the picture. A broken-down stone-and-timber hovel, vomiting straw out of the unglazed windows.
“Well, it's unrecognizable. I can't imagine how much money you spent.”
Luisa grimaced. “Don't even mention it. Anyway, it was around four hundred thousand.”
The deputy police chief whistled like a teakettle.
“Look, before you ask, I'll tell you myself. Anyway, everyone in town already knows. It was Leone's money. It's all due to him that the place looks the way it does.” Her chin began to quiver, her epiglottis emitted a rattle, and a fountain of tears poured out of Luisa Pec's pretty blue eyes. Italo immediately lunged forward and offered her a handkerchief.
“Sorry . . . forgive me.”
“No, we owe you the apology. Unfortunately, this is the horrible work I do. I'm worse than a vulture. Oh, well . . .” and, with a smile, Rocco tossed back his glass of juniper berry grappa.
It was good. It slid like a caress down to his stomach and his icy feet.
“Luisa, I have to ask you something. Did Leone ever have problems with, let's say, people from down south?”
Luisa sniffed, dried her tears, and handed the handkerchief back to Pierron. “What do you mean, âproblems'?”
“Did he or his family, as far as you know, ever have any unclear dealings with Sicily? I'm talking about organized crime.”
Luisa Pec turned red. Her eyes opened wide. “Ma . . . Mafia?”
“You can call it that.”
“Leone? No, oh my God, no. His family makes wine. They've been in the wine business for a hundred years. A solid company. You see? That's theirs,” she said, turning slightly to point to a wine rack full of bottles with a distinctive label. “Nice people. Never fought with them once.”
“Are you certain? Did he ever seem worried about anything? Ever get any mysterious phone calls?”
“No. I swear he didn't.” Then a shadow passed over Luisa Pec's face. Rocco knew how to read nuances, to say nothing of things marked with a highlighter. “What is it, Luisa?”
“A few days ago he talked on the phone to Mimmo . . . Domenico, his older brother. They argued. But I don't know what it was about; maybe it wasn't anything serious.”
“But you can ask him yourself. They're coming up for the funeral.”
“I know. In fact, they ought to be here already. It was a pleasure to see you again.”
“I'm here if you need me. Don't you want to see the restaurant?”
“No. Too many beautiful things, one after another, can really do a number on your self-esteem,” Rocco replied with a smile and stood up. Pierron followed suit and gripped Luisa Pec's hand.
“Buck up” was the only thing Italo said.
“Buck up?” the deputy police chief asked Italo as soon as they left the Belle Cuneaz. “Seriously? How do you come up with these things, Italo?”
“Poor thing. She was so upset, she seemedâ”
“Whatever she seemed to you, you can keep it, think about it, swallow it, and take it home with you.
Would you do me a favor! Come on, Luigi, let's get this hunk of metal and take it back down the hill.”
“So you're going to drive?” said the head snowcat operator, a dead cigarette butt in his mouth.
A minute and forty-five seconds later, the quad driven by Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone braked to a halt in front of the snowcat garage.
“This thing is amazing.”
“When we hit the bump at the end of the piste, I'm pretty sure my feet went higher than my head,” said Italo Pierron, brushing snow off his down jacket.
“Because you lack confidence.”
“Well, see you around?” said Luigi as he headed off.
“See you around.”
Italo and Rocco were heading for the cableway station when a voice shouted out: “Dottore! Dottor Schiavone!”
Rocco turned around. From the little knot of ski instructors lounging on the benches he saw Caciuoppolo's uniform emergeâCaciuoppolo, the skiing Neapolitan. He was waving one hand in the air to get his attention and smiling with his gleaming white teeth. He hurried up in his ski boots, his skis thrown over his shoulder. The deputy police chief walked toward him, both hands in his pocketsâafter the motorcycle ride at 6,500 feet above sea level, they felt like two blocks of ice.
“Caciuoppolo!” he shouted back, and a billowing puff of dense steam emerged from his mouth. “Why aren't you with the forensics team?”
“Dottore!” The young man raised one hand to his forehead in a rough approximation of a military salute. “They weren't crazy about my presence. It seems that we made a huge mess on the location.” Officer Caciuoppolo's smile vanished, and his face turned sad, in spite of the burnt-sienna suntan. “Commissa', I need to speak to you.”
“Were you heading back down to the village?”
“Then I'll come with you. Inside the cable car would be better.”
The first one in the cabin was Pierron, followed by the deputy police chief and, last of all, Caciuoppolo, who got in after securing his skis to the external rack. The cabin attendant checked to make sure the doors were securely shut, and the little shell began its descent.
“All right, then, what do you have to tell me?”
“There are things you ought to know. Leone MiccichÃ¨, the corpse . . .”
“Well, he'd been with Luisa Pec for three years. And they were expecting a baby.”
Rocco looked into Caciuoppolo's dark eyes. “How do you know that?”
“I know because Omar told me so.”
Italo Pierron nodded.
“Do you know him?” Rocco asked him.
“Sure. Omar is one of the ski instructors. Or maybe we should say the chief ski instructor, really,” Italo replied.
“Well, what the hell is it to Omar? Instead of teaching people how to ride on those gadgets, what do they do? Gossip like a bunch of housewives?”
“No.” Caciuoppolo laughed. “No, you see, Dottore. Omar Borghetti was Luisa Pec's boyfriend. Before she started seeing Leone. So that means he knows everything.”
Rocco looked outside. The sun was smashing down onto the mountains, drenching them in orange and making them look like so many enormous caramel Mont Blancs.
“The boyfriend. Is that what you wanted to tell me?”
“That's not all, Dottore,” Caciuoppolo went on. “There's something that I think you might need to know. Omar Borghetti was very upset when Luisa broke up with him. He couldn't get over it. They had planned on fixing up the hut together. Omar had applied for loans and everything. Then the dream vanished in a puff of smoke. I mean, you've seen Luisa Pec, no?”
“Good work, Caciuoppolo. You've already identified the person of interest.
The cable car slipped between sky and clouds. Mountains and sunset both disappeared, swallowed up by the milky glaze. The deputy police chief started thinking aloud. “In other words, he found out that Luisa was pregnant and he just saw red. Could be, eh? I don't say no, Caciuoppolo. Let's leave no stone unturned.”
The downhill station came closer and closer. Rocco saw the men of the forensics team loading plastic crates onto their parked pickup trucks. He rolled his eyes skyward. “There are the guys from the forensics squad,” he said. Italo and Caciuoppolo pressed their faces to the windows to see. “You know how you can recognize them? When they walk, they look as if they're afraid they're going to step on shit. An occupational hazard. You see the guy with the green jacket?” He pointed his forefinger at a man waiting with folded arms next to the pickup. “That one is an assistant commissioner. And he's the team leader.”
“How do you know that?” asked Italo.
“Because I know him. His name is Luca Farinelli. He's a tremendous pain in the ass, but he's also the best there is. In particular, he's got one thing that could make anyone go a little apeshit.”
“And what's that?” asked Caciuoppolo.
“His wife. A terrifyingly hot babe. Olive skin, curly hair, green eyes. Nobody understands how she could have fallen for Farinelli. You can't really see him from here, but he's the most uninteresting man I know. You know that kind of face you see and immediately forget?”
Rocco's cell phone played the first few notes of the “Ode to Joy.” “What's up, Deruta? Tell me all about it.”
“Ah, Dottore, we're hard at work. But there's a bunch of English names. What should we do, check them all out?”
“All of them, Deruta, check them all. Do you have anything else for me?”
Rocco burst out in a liberating peal of laughter. “And how is he?”
“He got a look at MiccichÃ¨'s corpse. First he turned white, then purple, then he slammed to the floor. Now he's at the hospital, but they say they're only going to keep him overnight.”
“All right, Deruta. All right. It strikes me as an excellent piece of news.”
“I do. Take care of yourself,” Rocco said, and, cackling to himself, put his cell phone back in his pocket. Pierron was looking at him inquisitively, but he saw no reason to satisfy the young officer's curiosity.
The cable car lurched to a halt and vomited out the three policemen.
“All right, Italo, now you go with Caciuoppolo to the bar and exchange telephone numbers. I'm going to talk to Farinelli. Have a good time. Ah, no, wait a second. Italo, give me a cigarette.”
Pierron pulled out his pack of Chesterfields and offered his superior officer a cigarette.
“Why don't you buy Camels, Italo? I don't like Chesterfields.” Rocco put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it while the two young officers headed off toward the metal staircase that led down to the main street of Champoluc. The deputy police chief twisted the cricks out of his neck and started walking toward the parking lot, where the assistant commissioner of the forensics team was waiting for him.