Authors: Antonio Manzini
“So that's the cat, right?” asked Rocco. He'd seen that kind of thing only in movies or documentaries about Alaska.
“That's right. And now it's going to take us up, Commissario! Deputy Police Chief, I meant to say.”
“Listen, just do thisâyou're not going to wrap your head around it no matter how hard you try. Call me whatever you want, I don't give a damn anyway. Plus,” Rocco went on, looking at the treaded vehicle, “why do they call it a cat if it looks more like a tank?”
Italo Pierron limited himself to a shrug in response.
“Well, okay, let's get aboard this cat. Come on!”
The deputy police chief looked down at his feet. His Clarks desert boots were dripping wet, the suede was drenched, and his feet were starting to get wet, too.
“Dottore, I told you to buy a pair of suitable shoes.”
“Pierron, stop busting my balls. I'm not putting on a pair of those cement mixers you people wear on your feetânot as long as I'm still breathing.”
They set off through snow piles and potholes created by the skiers' power slides and oversteers. The snowcat, with the lights mounted on the roof, standing motionless in the middle of the snow, looked like a giant mechanical insect poised to seize its prey.
“Here, Dottore, step up on the tread and get in,” shouted the snowcat driver from inside the Plexiglas cabin.
Rocco obeyed. He took a seat inside the cabin, followed immediately by Pierron. The driver shut the door and pushed the gearshift forward.
Rocco caught a whiff of alcohol mixed with sweat.
“I'm Luigi Bionaz, and I'm in charge of the snowcats up here in Champoluc,” said the driver.
Rocco just looked at him. The guy had a couple of days' whiskers, and his eyes were lit up with an alcoholic gleam. “Luigi, are you okay?”
“Because before I go anywhere in this contraption, I want to know if you're drunk.”
Luigi looked at him, his eyes as big as the snowcat's headlights. “Me?”
“I don't give a damn if you drink or smoke hash. But the one thing I don't want is to be killed in this thing up at an elevation of five thousand feet.”
“No, Dottore, everything's fine. I only drink at night. The odor you smell is probably from some youngster who used the vehicle earlier this afternoon.”
“Of course it is,” said the deputy police chief skeptically. “Fine. Come on, let's get going.”
The snowcat made its way up the steep ski slope. Illuminated by the headlights, Rocco saw a wall of snow straight ahead of him, and he couldn't believe that that pachyderm could successfully climb such a nearly vertical incline.
“Hey, tell me something! We're not about to go head over heels, are we?”
“Don't worry about a thing, Dottore. These behemoths can climb slopes steeper than a forty percent grade.”
They took a curve and found themselves in the middle of the woods. The blade-like beam of the headlights lit up the soft blanket of snow and the black trunks of the trees that were suffocating the groomed run.
“How wide is this piste?”
“Fifty yards or so.”
“And on a normal day, how many people come through here?”
“That's something we'll have to ask at the head office. They know how many daily ski passes they sell. So we could get a count, but it might not be all that accurate.”
The deputy police chief nodded. He stuck his hands in his pockets, pulled out a pair of leather gloves, and put them on. The run was veering to the right. Pierron said nothing. He was looking up, as if searching for an answer among the branches of the larches and firs.
They went on climbing, accompanied only by the engine's roar. At last, in a broad clearing, they saw the beams of the floodlights arranged around the site where the body had been found.
The snowcat left the piste and cut through the woods. It bounced over a few tree roots and hummocks.
“Listen, who found the body?” asked Rocco.
“Can I talk to him?”
“Sure, Commissario, he's down at the cableway station, waiting. He hasn't really recovered yet,” Luigi Bionaz replied as he braked the snowcat to a halt. At last, he switched off the engine.
The minute he set his shoes down on the snow, Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone understood just how right his co-worker had been to recommend he wear heavy boots with insulated soles, the kind of shoes that Rocco called cement mixers. Because they really did resemble a pair of cement mixers. The chill gnawed at the soles of his feet, which were already tingling from the cold, and the feeling jangled his nerves from heels to brain. He heaved a breath. The air was even thinner than it had been at the bottom of the hill. The temperature was well below freezing. The cartilage in his ears was pulsating and his nose was already dripping. Inspector Caterina Rispoli approached him, light-footed.
“Deputy Police Chief.”
“Casella and I went up to secure the location.”
Rocco nodded. He looked at Inspector Rispoli's face, which he could barely glimpse under the hat crammed down over her head. Her mascara and eyeliner were oozing down as if off a wax mask.
“Stay here, Inspector.” Then he turned around. Far below, he could see the lights of the village. To his right was the snowcat that Amedeo had been driving, still parked in the middle of the woods where that poor devil had abandoned it hours ago.
Walking through nearly knee-deep snow, Rocco drew closer to the monster. He examined the front of the vehicle. He ran his hand over it, sized it up carefully, as if he were thinking of buying the thing. Then he squatted down and looked under the tracks, covered with fresh snow. He nodded a couple of times and headed over to the place where the body had been found.
“What were you looking for, Dottore?” asked Italo, but the deputy police chief didn't reply.
A policeman with a pair of skis thrown over his shoulders came toward them, striding easily, even though he was wearing ski boots with stiff, heavy hooks. “Commissario! I'm Officer Caciuoppolo!”
“Fuck, another native!”
The young man smiled. “I secured the crime scene.”
“Good for you, Caciuoppolo. But tell me, where did you learn to ski?”
“At Roccaraso. My folks have a place there. Are you from Rome, Commissario?”
“Yep, Trastevere. What about you?”
“Excellent. Let's go see what we have here.”
What did they have here? A half-frozen corpse under five or six inches of snow. To call it a corpse was a euphemism. It might have been one once. Now it was mess of flesh, nerves, and blood that had been pureed by the snowcat's tillers. All around it, goose feathers. Everywhere. The deputy police chief wrapped his overcoat tighter. The wind, though it was light, penetrated beneath the lapel and caressed his neck, leaving a wake of hairs standing at attention like soldiers saluting a general. Rocco's knee already hurt, the one he'd crushed when he was fifteen, playing the last match of the season with his team, Urbetevere Calcio. Bent over the dead body was Alberto Fumagalli, the medical examiner of Livorno, who was using a pen to poke at the hems of the poor man's down jacket.
The deputy police chief went over without saying hello. In the past four months, since the day they'd first met, he'd never said hello to him yet. So why start now?
“What are all these feathers?” asked Rocco.
“The filling of the down jacket,” replied Alberto, bent over the corpse.
The poor man's face was unrecognizable. One arm had been sheared off neatly, and his rib cage had popped open under the vehicle's weight, spewing forth its contents.
“What a mess,” said Rocco in a low voice.
Fumagalli shook his head. “I'm going to have to do an autopsy in a proper facility. I'll get a good look and let you know. Just by the sight of him . . . I don't know! That thing crushed him. You can imagine the work it'll take just to reassemble him! But right now, since I'm frozen and pissed off, I'm just going to head back down and get something hot to drink. Well, anyway, it's a manâ”
“I'd gotten that far myself.”
Alberto glared at Rocco. “Would you let me finish? It's a man, around forty. His watch says seven thirty. That's when I think that tank must have run over him.”
“I'm with you.”
“He has no ID. He's wounded, all cut up. Still, you know something, Schiavone?”
“Why don't you tell me, Fumagalli.”
“There's blood everywhere.”
“Maybe even too much blood. So?” asked Rocco.
“You see? Blood with all its components, water and cells, already freezes at zero degrees Celsius. But just to be safe, in the lab we keep it at minus four degrees centigrade. But the thing that should give you pause is the fact that up here, we're at zero degrees, understood? Zero degrees centigrade. But this blood is still nice and liquid, I'd say. Which tells me that he hasn't been dead long.”
The deputy police chief nodded in silence. He'd found himself staring at the corpse's left hand. Big. Gnarled. It reminded him of his father's hands, damaged by years and years of inks and acid solvents in the printing plant where he worked. The dead man's left hand was missing three fingers. The right hand lay about thirty feet away from the remains of that still unidentified body.
“I've seen hedgehogs on the highway in better shape than that!” said Schiavone, and a billowing cloud of condensation emerged, fat and compact, from his mouth. Then he finally turned to look at the area that the officers had secured.
It was a mess.
Aside from the deep tracks cut by the snowcat, there were footprints everywhere. Thirty feet away, at the edge of the woods, there was even an officer taking a piss on a tree. He had his back turned, so Rocco couldn't tell who it was.
“Hey!” he yelled.
The guy turned around. It was Domenico Casella.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Rocco shouted at him.
“Taking a piss, Dottore!”
“Nice work, Casella. Just think how happy the guys from forensics are going to be!”
Fumagalli shot a glare at Casella, and at Caciuoppolo, who was standing with his skis over one shoulder at a nice safe distance so he wouldn't have to look at the mangled remains. “You're all just a herd of pathetic cocksuckers!” the Livornese doctor grumbled.
“I gotta say. Didn't they teach you guys anything?”
Casella zipped up his pants and walked over to the deputy police chief. “No, it's just that I couldn't hold it any longer. Plus, Dottore, we don't have any proof they even killed him here, right?”
“Ah, we have our own homegrown Sherlock Holmes! Fuck off, Casella. Get the hell away from here and stick close to the snowcat, where you can't screw things up. Down there, by Inspector Rispoli. Move! Did you touch anything else?”
“Good. Get over there, don't move, and try to stay out of trouble.” Then Rocco spread his arms wide in exasperation. “You want to know something, Alberto?”
“Oh, you're going to hear from the Aosta forensics team before long, once they find fingerprints from our men, and urine, and pubic hair, and head hair. Once you guys are through with the place, even if the killer took a dump on the ground, they wouldn't be able to find an uncompromised piece of evidence. Thanks to imbeciles like Casella . . . and you, too, Caciuoppolo! You say that you secured the crime scene, and then what?”
Caciuoppolo dropped his head.
“Look what you've done! Here are your footprints all around the corpse, on the road, everywhere! Holy Mary, mother of God! A guy could just give up and go home after this!”
His shoes were sopping wet. The cold was increasing exponentially as the minutes crept by. Fumagalli's zero degrees Celsius was just a fond memory by now, and the wind continued to torment him, even under his warm woolen undershirt. Rocco wished he were at least four hundred miles away from here, ideally in the Gusto Osteria, on Via della Frezza, “Da Antonio,” just a stone's throw from the Lungotevere, eating fritto misto and beef tartare, washed down with a bottle of Verdicchio di Matelica.
“Do you think he could have been a skier?” asked Officer Pierron, to break the tension; up till then, Pierron had been keeping a safe distance from the corpse.
Rocco looked at him with all the contempt he'd been accumulating in four months of exile from Rome. “Italo, he's wearing boots! Have you ever seen anyone go skiing in a pair of rubber-soled calfskin boots?”
“No, I couldn't see them from here. Sorry!” Italo replied, hunching his head down between his shoulders.
“Well, then, instead of spouting bullshit, take two steps forward and look for yourself! Do your job!”
“I'd have to decline that offer, Commissario!”
A wave of depression swept over Rocco. He looked the medical examiner in the eyes. “These are what they give me, and these are all I have to take with me when I work a case. Okay, Alberto, thanks. Give me a call the minute you have something. Let's just hope he died of a heart attack, fell down, and got covered up with snow.”
“Sure, let's hope,” said Alberto.
Rocco shot one last glance at the corpse. “Give my regards to the forensics squad.” And he turned to go.
But something struck him, like an insect when you're riding fast on a moped with no windshield. He spun around again.
“Alberto, you're a man of the world. Would you say this guy was wearing technical gear?”
Alberto made a face. “Well, his pants were padded. His windbreaker was the right stuff, no question: North Face Polar. Couldn't have been cheap. I bought one just like it for my daughter. Only in red.”
“It cost more than four hundred euros.”
Rocco bent over the half-frozen corpse again. “No gloves. I wonder why.”