Authors: Antonio Manzini
“What do you want, Michele?” roared the deputy police chief.
“We have a problem. On the slopes at Champoluc.”
“And where do we have this problem?”
“And where is that?”
Rocco Schiavone had been shipped north to Aosta from the Cristoforo Colombo police station, in Rome, the previous September. Four months later, all he knew about the geography of the city of Aosta and its surrounding province was the locations of his apartment, police headquarters, the courthouse, and the local trattoria.
“Champoluc is in Val d'Ayas!” Deruta replied, in an almost scandalized tone of voice.
“What's that supposed to mean? What's Val d'Ayas?”
“Val d'Ayas, Dottore, is the valley above VerrÃ¨s. Champoluc is the most famous village in that valley. People go there to ski.”
“Okay, fine, so what?”
“Well, a couple of hours ago someone found a corpse.”
Schiavone let the hand holding the cell phone flop onto the mattress and shut his eyes, cursing through his teeth. “A corpse . . .”
That was a 10 on the scale of pains in the ass. Definitely a 10. Possibly 10 with a bullet.
“Can you hear me, Dottore?” the telephone crackled.
Rocco raised the device back to his ear. He sighed. “Who's coming with me?”
“Your choice. Me or Pierron.”
“Italo Pierron, every day for the rest of my life!” the deputy police chief responded promptly.
Deruta acknowledged the insult with a prolonged silence.
“Deruta? What, did you fall asleep?”
“No, I'm at your orders, Dottore.”
“Tell Pierron to come, and to bring the BMW.”
“Do you think the jeep might be better for high-mountain driving?”
“No. I like the BMW. It's more comfortable, and it has better heating and a radio that works. The only people who take the jeep are those losers the forest rangers.”
“So should I tell Pierron to come get you at your apartment?”
“Yes. And tell him not to ring the bell.”
He dropped his phone on the bed and closed his eyes, laying his hand over them, palm down.
He heard the rustling whisper of Nora's negligee. Then her weight on the mattress. Then her lips and warm breath in his ear. And finally her teeth, nibbling at his earlobe. At any other time, these were all things that would have aroused him, but right now Nora's foreplay left him completely indifferent.
“What's going on?” asked Nora in a faint voice.
“That was the office.”
Rocco pulled himself up into a sitting position on the bed without even glancing at her. He slowly pulled on his socks.
“Can't you talk?”
“I don't feel like it. I'm working. Leave me alone.”
Nora nodded. She brushed aside a lock of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. “So you have to go out?”
Rocco finally turned and looked at her. “Well, what do you think I'm doing?”
There Nora lay, stretched out on the bed. Her arm, thrown over her head, revealed her perfectly hairless armpit. Her crimson satin negligee caressed her body, emphasizing with an interplay of light and shadow her generous curves. Her long, smooth dark hair framed her face, white as cream. Her black eyes looked like a pair of Apulian olives freshly plucked from the tree. Her lips were thin, but she knew just how to apply the right amount of lipstick to fill them out. Nora, a magnificent specimen of womanhood, just a year over forty.
“You could be a little nicer about it, couldn't you?”
“No,” Rocco replied. “I couldn't. It's late, I have to drive up into the mountains, I have to kiss the whole evening with you good-bye, and in a little while it's probably going to start snowing, too!”
He stood up brusquely from the bed, went over to sit in an armchair, and put on his shoes: a pair of Clarks desert boots, the only type of footwear that Rocco Schiavone knew. Nora lay on the bed. She felt a little dumb, made up and dressed in satin. A table set for dinner, and no guests attending. She sat up. “What a shame. I made you raclette for dinner.”
“What's that?” the deputy police chief asked glumly.
“Haven't you ever had it? It's a bowl of melted fontina cheese with artichokes, olives, and little chunks of salami.”
Rocco stood up and pulled on a crewneck sweater. “Nice and digestible, I gather.”
“Am I going to see you tomorrow?”
“How the hell would I know, Nora! I don't even know where I'm going to be tomorrow.”
He left the bedroom. Nora sighed and stood up. She caught up with him at the front door. She whispered: “I'll be waiting for you.”
“What am I, a bus?” Rocco shot back. Then he smiled. “Nora, forgive me, this is just a bad night. You're an incredibly beautiful woman. You're unquestionably the top tourist attraction in the city of Aosta.”
“After the Roman arch.”
“I'm sick and tired of Roman rubble. But not of you.”
He kissed her hastily on the lips and pulled the door shut behind him.
Nora felt like laughing. That's just how Rocco Schiavone was. Take him or leave him. She looked at the pendulum clock that hung by the front door. She still had plenty of time to call Sofia and go see a movie. Then maybe they could get a pizza together.
Rocco stepped out of the downstairs door, and an icy hand seized his throat.
“Fucking cold out here!”
He'd left the car a hundred yards from the front entrance. His feet, in the pair of Clarks desert boots he was wearing, had frozen immediately upon contact with the sidewalk, frosted with a white covering of goddamned snow. A cutting wind was blowing, and there was no one out on the streets. The first thing he did when he got into his Volvo was turn on the heat. He blew on his hands. A hundred yards was all the distance it took to freeze them solid. “Fucking cold out here!” he said again, obsessively, like a mantra, and the words, along with the condensation from his breath, flew up against the windshield, fogging it white. He started the diesel engine, punched the defrost button, and sat there staring at a metal streetlamp tossing in the wind. Grains of snow fell through the cone of light, sifting through the darkness like stardust.
“It's snowing! I knew it!”
He put the car in reverse and drove out of Duvet.
When he parked outside his apartment building on Rue Piave, the BMW with Pierron behind the wheel was already there with the engine running. Rocco leaped into the car, which the officer had already heated to a toasty seventy-three degrees. An agreeable feeling of well-being enveloped him like a woolen blanket.
“Italo, I'm hoping you didn't ring the buzzer to my apartment.”
Pierron put the car in gear. “I'm not an idiot, Commissario.”
“Good. But you have to lose this habit. The rank of
has been abolished.”
The windshield wipers were clearing snowflakes off the glass.
“If it's snowing here, I can just imagine up at Champoluc,” said Pierron.
“Is it up high?”
“Five thousand feet.”
“That's insane!” The greatest elevation Rocco Schiavone had ever attained in his life was 450 feet above sea level at Rome's Monte Mario. That is, of course, if you left out the past four months in Aosta, at 1,895 feet above sea level. He couldn't even imagine someone living at 5,000 feet above sea level. It made his head spin just to think about it.
“What do people do at five thousand feet above sea level?”
“They ski. They climb ice. In summer, they go hiking.”
“Just think.” The deputy police chief pulled a Chesterfield out of the policeman's pack. “I prefer Camels.”
“Chesterfields taste of iron. Buy Camels, Italo.” He lit it and took a drag. “Not even stars in the sky,” he said, looking out the car window.
Pierron was focused on driving. He knew that he was about to be treated to a serenade of nostalgia for Rome. And sure enough.
“In Rome this time of year, it's cold, but often there's a north wind that clears away the clouds. And then the sun comes out. It's sunny and cold. The city's all red and orange, the sky is blue, and it's great to stroll down those cobblestone streets. All the colors are brighter when the north wind blows. It's like a rag taking the dust off an antique painting.”
Pierron looked up at the sky. He'd been to Rome once in his life, five years ago, and it smelled so bad that he'd thrown up for three days running.
“And the pussy. You have no idea of the sheer quantity of pussy in Rome. I'm telling you, maybe only in Milan will you find anything comparable. You ever been to Milan?”
“You don't know what you're missing. Go there. It's a wonderful city. You just have to understand how it works.”
Pierron was a good listener. He was a mountain man, and he knew how to stay silent when silence was called for and how to speak when the time came to open his mouth. He was twenty-seven, but you'd guess he was ten years older. He'd never left Val d'Aosta, aside from the three days in Rome and a week in Djerba, the island off Tunisia, with his ex-girlfriend Veronica.
Italo liked Rocco Schiavone. He liked him because he wasn't one to stand on ceremony, and because you could always learn something from a guy like him. Sooner or later he'd have to ask the deputy police chiefâthough he insisted on using the old rank of
âjust what had happened in Rome. But their acquaintance was still too new, Italo sensed, and it was too early to delve into details. For the moment, he'd satisfied his curiosity by poking into documents and reports. Rocco Schiavone had solved a substantial number of casesâmurders, thefts, and fraudsâand had seemed to be well on his way to a brilliant and successful career. And then suddenly the shooting star that was Rocco Schiavone veered and fell, slamming to earth with a rapid and silent transfer to Val d'Aosta for disciplinary reasons. But just what the stain on Rocco Schiavone's CV had been, that was something he never managed to find out. The police officers working at headquarters had talked it over among themselves. Caterina Rispoli argued that Schiavone had risen above his station. “I'll bet you he stepped on somebody's toes and that somebody had the power to have him shipped north; that kind of stuff happens all the time in Rome.” Deruta disagreed; he felt sure that someone as capable as Rocco Schiavone was an annoyance, especially if he lacked a political patron. D'Intino suspected sex was at the bottom of it. “I'll bet he took somebody's wife or girlfriend to bed and got caught.” Italo had a suspicion all his own, and he kept it to himself. His guess had been guided by Rocco Schiavone's home address. Via Alessandro Poerio. High on the Janiculum Hill. Apartments up there ran more than eight thousand euros a square meter, or a thousand dollars a square foot, as his cousin, who sold real estate in Gressoney, had told him. No one on a deputy police chief's salary could afford an apartment in that part of town.
Rocco crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray. “What are you thinking about, Pierron?”
“Nothing, Dottore. About the road.”
And Rocco looked out in silence at the highway, pelleted by falling flakes of snow.
Looking up from the main street of Champoluc, he could see a patch of light in the middle of the woods. That was where the body had been found, and now it was lit by halogen floodlights. If he squinted, he could just make out the shadows of policemen and cat drivers working the scene. The news had spread with the speed of a high-mountain wind. Everyone stood around at the base of the cableway, their noses tipped up toward the forest, midway up the slope, each asking the same question, which was unlikely to be answered anytime soon. The English tourists, drunk; the Italians with worried faces. The locals were snickering in their patois at the thought of the hordes of Milanese, Genovese, and Piedmontese who would find out tomorrow morning that the slopes were closed.
The BMW with Italo at the wheel pulled to a halt at the foot of the cableway. It had taken an hour and a half from Aosta.
Driving up that road, navigating the hairpin curves, Rocco Schiavone had observed the landscape. The black forests, the bursts of gravel vomited downhill from the rocky slopes like rivers of milk. At least one good thing, during that endless climb: around Brusson, the snow had stopped falling and the moon, riding free in the dark sky, reflected off the blanket of snow. It looked as if someone had scattered handfuls of tiny diamonds over the countryside.
Rocco got out of the car wrapped in his green loden overcoat and immediately felt the chill of the snow bite through the soles of his shoes.
“Commissario, it's up there. They're coming to get us with the cat now,” said Pierron, pointing out the headlights partially concealed by the trees halfway up the slope.
“The cat?” asked Rocco, his chattering teeth chopping his breath into little puffs as it fogged up in the cold air.
“That's right, the tracked vehicle that works the slopes.”
Schiavone took a breath. What a fucked-up place to come die in.
“Italo, explain something to me. How could it be that no one saw a dead body lying in the middle of the piste? I mean, weren't there skiers on that run?”
“No, Commissario,” Pierron said, then corrected himself. “Excuse me, Deputy Police Chief. They found him in the woods, right in the middle of a road they use as a shortcut. No one takes that road. Except for the snowcats.”
“Ah. Understood. But who would go bury a body way up there?”
“That's what you're going to have to find out,” Pierron concluded, with a naive smile.
The noise of a jackhammer filled the cold, crisp air. But it wasn't a jackhammer at all. The snowcat had arrived. It stopped at the base of the cableway with the engine running, dense smoke pouring out the exhaust pipe.