Authors: Antonio Manzini
Alberto Fumagalli spread his arms in bafflement. The deputy police chief stood back up. “Let's think this one over. Let's think on it.”
“Well, Commissario,” chimed in Caciuoppolo, who had been leaning on his ski poles and listening, “maybe he's someone who lives in one of the huts up in Crest. You see? Just two hundred yards from here.”
Rocco looked at the little cluster of houses hidden in the snow.
“Ah. There are people who live up there?”
“In the middle of nowhere? Huh . . .”
“If you love the mountains, that's the place for you, right?”
Rocco Schiavone grimaced in disapproval. “Maybe so, Caciuoppolo, maybe so. Nice work.”
“But he also could have died somewhere else and been carried up here. No?”
Caciuoppolo stood lost in thought.
“Even though . . .” Rocco added, “ . . . that means they put the down jacket on him afterward. Because a person's hardly likely to die indoors wearing a down jacket. Or elseâwhy not? Maybe he was about to go out, and then he died? Or else he went to see someone, only had time to get his gloves off, and then died?” Rocco looked at Caciuoppolo without seeing him. “Or else no one killed him at all, he just died on his own, and I'm standing here spouting bullshit. No, Caciuoppolo?”
“Commissa', if you say so.”
“Thanks, Officer. We'll look into this, too. In any case, I don't know if you read the memos that circulate, if you keep up with these things, but they've abolished the rank of
in the police force. Now we're called deputy police chief. But I'm just keeping you informed. I really couldn't give a damn, personally!”
“Caciuoppolo, why would someone born in Naples, with Capri, Ischia, and Procida just a half-hour ferry ride away, along with Positano and the Amalfi Coastâwhy would you come up here to freeze your ass off?”
Caciuoppolo looked at him and flashed a southern smile, with all his gleaming white teeth accounted for. “Commissa'âexcuse me, Deputy Police Chief, sir. What's that old expression? There's one thing that pulls a cart stronger than a team of oxen, and that's . . .”
“Understood.” Rocco looked up at the black sky, where racing clouds covered and uncovered the stars. “And you met her up here in the mountains?”
“No. In Aosta. She has an ice cream shop.”
“An ice cream shop? In Aosta?”
“Sure. You know, they have summer up here, too.”
“I wouldn't know that yet. I got here in late September.”
“Trust me, Dotto'. It'll come, it'll come! And it's beautiful, too.”
Rocco Schiavone started walking toward the snowcat, which was waiting to take him back to town. By now his feet were like two frozen flounder fillets.
When the snowcat let Schiavone and Pierron out at the base of the cableway, the crowd of rubberneckers was smaller, thanks to the leverage of the snow and the cold. Only the Brits were still there, a small knot of people singing “You'll Never Walk Alone” at the top of their lungs. The deputy police chief looked at them. Red-faced, eyes half shut from the beer they'd swilled.
Suddenly he couldn't take it anymore.
He still remembered May 30, 1984, like it was yesterday. Conti and Graziani kicking the ball at random while Liverpool beat Rome and took home their fourth European Cup.
“Pierron, tell them to shut up!” he shouted. “There's a corpse up thereâa little respect, for fuck's sake!”
Pierron walked over to talk to the Brits. They very civilly begged pardon, shook hands, and fell silent. Rocco only felt worse. First of all because now he was pissed off, and a nice rowdy brawl would have been just the thing. And second because Pierron spoke English. Schiavone barely knew how to say “Imagine all the people,” a phrase that was unlikely to be particularly useful, either in Italy or in far-off Albion.
“Do you speak English, Italo?” he asked him.
“Well, you know, Dottore . . .” replied the officer in an apologetic tone of voice, “in the valleys here, we all speak French, and they do a good job of teaching English in the schools. The thing is, we live on tourism. See, the schools in Val d'Aosta are first-rate. We learn languages, banking, and we're pretty much in the vanguard when it comes toâ”
“Pierron!” the deputy police chief broke in. “When you people were living in caves and scratching your fleas, in Rome we were already decadent faggots!” and he hastened over to the waiting car.
Pierron shook his head. “What are we going to do, head back to town?”
“I want to have a talk with the guy who found the corpse,” Rocco replied, and turned toward the cableway administrative offices. Italo followed him like a bloodhound.
The offices of Monterosa Ski were deserted at that time of night. Aside from a young woman in a skirt suit and a policeman dressed for skiing, both seated in the lobby. The fluorescent lights made their faces look worn. But while the policeman had the handsome tan of someone who spends hours on the slopes, the shapely young woman looked pale and exhausted.
Slightly overweight, but not someone you'd kick out of bed
, thought Rocco as soon as he saw her, coming in through the double glass doors with Pierron. The skiing policeman snapped to attention. At his feet was a small puddle of water, evidence that the snow clinging to his Nordica ski boots had melted. And an unmistakable sign that the officer had been sitting there for quite some time now.
“Officer De Marinis.”
Rocco looked him up and down. “So why aren't you with your Neapolitan colleague, Caciuoppolo, guarding the scene of the murder?”
“I was here with Amedeo, the one who found the corpse,” the cop explained.
“What are you, a babysitter? Get your skis and go on up and lend a hand.”
“Right away, Dottore.”
With the loud clapping of ski boots on the floor, De Marinis left the building.
“Where is he?” Rocco asked the young woman.
“Come this way; Amedeo's in there,” the clerk replied, pointing to a shut door behind her. “I brought him a cup of hot tea.”
“Good work . . . Margherita,” said Rocco, reading the name on the badge pinned to her lapel. “Good work. Could you bring a couple more for the two of us, please?”
The young woman nodded her head and left.
Amedeo was sitting in a Naugahyde chair. His eyes were puffy, and his hair was flattened to his head. He'd set his cap and gloves down on the table, and he was staring at the floor. Rocco and Italo grabbed two office chairs with wheels and sat down facing him. Finally Amedeo looked up. “Who are you?” he asked in a faint voice.
“Deputy Police Chief Schiavone. Do you feel up to answering a couple of questions?”
“Christ on a crutch. I still can't believe it. I heard a crack andâ”
Rocco stopped him with an upheld hand. “Do me a favor, Amedeo. Let's take things one at a time. So, now, you work on the thingies, the . . . snowcats, right?”
“Yes, for the past few months. Luigi, my boss, got me the job. He's a good friend of mine.”
“He's the one who took us up, Dottore,” Italo added. Rocco nodded.
“I'd just finished doing the piste near the top. There was a wall andâ”
“A wall?” Schiavone asked with a grimace.
“When the slope turns really steep, that's what we call it. A wall. Or a black piste,” Italo offered, coming to his aid.
“Go on, Amedeo.”
“The wall is just too steep. You can't take it. It's dangerous, and narrow, and if you're not super-skillful and experienced, it can end badly. Luckily my boss, Luigi, gave me a call and told me I could head down and finish the last part of the piste, where it comes into town.”
“And so I headed back. It's just that to go back down to town, we don't drive over the runs we've just groomed. We take the shortcut, the Crest shortcut.”
“Do all of you use it?”
“This Crest shortcut,” replied Rocco.
“When our shift is over, yes. Otherwise we'd ruin all the work we've done. I got done early, because basically I'm the one with the least experience. So you take the shortcut through Crest, which is that little village of just a few houses. From there, at the fountain, the shortcut runs through the woods and downhill.”
“And that's where you ran over the corpse.”
Amedeo said nothing. He looked down.
“And then from the shortcut where do you go?” Rocco asked.
“You wind up in the middle of the piste that runs down to town. Which is the last one we do. And then our shift is over.”
“Understood. You go through one at a time, and the last one down grooms it so it's ready for the next day's skiing,” Rocco concluded. “So if it hadn't been you, somebody else was bound to run over the corpse. You just had the bad luck to be first, Amedeo.”
“Fine. That's all clear,” said Rocco, just as Margherita walked into the room with two small steaming plastic cups. Rocco took one. “Thanks for the tea, Margherita,” he said and gulped it down.
It tasted like dish soap. But at least it was hot. Margherita was about to leave when Rocco stopped her. “Tell me something, Margherita.”
The young woman turned around. “Certainly, Dottore.”
“How many people live in Champoluc?”
“Leaving out the tourists?”
“Just residents, I mean.”
“Not even four hundred.”
“Just one big family, right?”
“Right. We're practically all related, really. For instance, me and Amedeo are cousins.”
Amedeo nodded in confirmation. Margherita, seeing that the deputy police chief had no other questions, left with a smile.
Rocco slapped the snowcat driver on the knee. This was the first time Italo had ever seen his boss make an affectionate gesture toward a stranger. Amedeo jerked in fright. “All right, then, Amedeo, now it's time for you to head home. Get some sleep if you can. In fact, you want some advice? Get drunkâtie one on. And don't ever think about it again. After all, it wasn't your fault, was it?”
“No. That's the truth. I was driving, then all of a sudden I heard this super-loud cracking sound and I slammed on the brakes. I didn't know what it was. A root, or a rock. But when I got out, all that blood . . . I hadn't seen the body at all!”
Rocco tilted his head slightly to one side, then reached one hand out toward the breast pocket of the young man's windbreaker. He inserted two fingers and pulled out a pack of Rizla cigarette papers.
“You didn't see itâunless you had smoked yourself blind,” Rocco said, sniffing the papers. “Grass. At least grass keeps your spirits up. How many joints did you smoke while you were up grooming the snow?”
“One,” Amedeo muttered with a groan.
“Plus you can throw in a couple of jiggers of grappa for good measure, and then that poor sucker might have been trying to cross the road and you would never have seen him, would you?”
“No, Dottore! No! I swear that I just didn't see that person at all. The snowcat has seven spotlights bolted to its roof; if he'd been crossing in front of me, I'd definitely have seen him!”
Wide-eyed, Amedeo looked first at Rocco and then at Italo, in search of an understanding gaze. “When I got out, I thought I'd run over a chicken, or a turkey, even if there are no chickens or turkeys up here. But there were feathers and down everywhere, a sea of feathers.”
Rocco smiled faintly. “It could have been a down comforter from Ikea, no?”
“Believe me, Dottore. I didn't see him!”
“How the fuck do you know it was a man?” Rocco snapped, and the sudden shift in mood frightened even Italo Pierron.
Amedeo seemed to shrink into his chair. “I don't know. I just said that, for no reason.”
Rocco stared at the young man in silence for at least ten seconds. Amedeo was sweating. The fingers of his hands gripped the little table, shaking.
“Amedeo Gunelli, believe me, if I find out that he was out walking and you ran him over, it'll be manslaughter at the very least. You'll be looking at a nice long stretch in lockup, you know that?”
“When the deputy police chief says âlockup,' he means prison,” Italo translated. Having spent the past four months listening to Rocco, he was starting to understand the way people talked in Rome.
Amedeo's jaw dropped as if someone had just pulled a string.
“Remember one thing, Amedeo,” said Rocco as he got up from his chair. “The police can be your friend or your worst nightmare. That's up to you.”
Outside, the wind slapped the two cops in the face with its icy palms. Italo trotted over to the deputy police chief. “Why did you say that to him? Do you think he ran him down?”
“I wish he had. The case would be closed. No, he's not the one who did it. The snowcat up there has no dents or scrapes on the front section. If he'd hit him straight on, there would have been something. But there's nothing.”
“Well?” asked Italo, who was baffled.
“You see, Italo, if you scare them, they'll always be eager to help. He's a good kidâhe might turn out to be useful. It's always better for them to be afraid of us, trust me.”
Italo nodded with conviction.
“But there is one thing we'll need to keep in mind: even with those blindingly powerful spotlights, he didn't see that poor guy's body lying on the ground. That's something we need to give some thought to.”
“A sign that the body was covered with snow?”
“Nice going, Italo. You're starting to catch on.”
Rocco and Officer Pierron were about to get into the car when a dark blue Lancia Gamma screeched to a halt thirty feet away.
Rocco rolled his eyes. There was no mistaking it: dark blue Lancia equals attorney general's office.