Authors: Antonio Manzini
A man got out of the car, five foot six tops, bundled in a down coat that hung below his knees. He wore a fur hat that almost covered his eyes. He strode rapidly over to Rocco Schiavone, right hand extended. “Name is Baldi. Pleased to meet you.”
Rocco shook his hand. “Schiavone, deputy police chief of the mobile squad.”
“Well, can you tell me what we're looking at here?”
Rocco looked him up and down. The man looked like a veteran of the Italian army in Russia, but he was the investigating magistrate on duty. “Are you the investigating magistrate?”
“No. I'm your grandmother. You bet your ass I'm the investigating magistrate.”
This is beginning well
, thought Rocco.
Dottor Baldi seemed to have an even shorter fuse than Rocco did. He was on duty and now he too had landed this tremendous pain in the ass. In a way, it made Rocco happyâit meant he wasn't the only one who'd been dragged out of a warm bed on a quiet night at home and sent rudely out into the snow at an elevation of five thousand feet above sea level.
“Well, there's a corpse up there. A man. Between forty and fifty years old.”
“Who is it?”
“If I knew that, I would have told you first name and last.”
“Nothing. We're just guessing that it's a man. I don't know if I convey the idea.”
“No, you don't convey it at all,” the magistrate replied. “Why don't you stop beating about the bush. Get to the point. Dottor Schiavone: how can you tell that it's a man? Describe clearly exactly what we're dealing with, because I'm already pissed off.”
Schiavone cleared his throat. “Because the snowcat ran over him and churned him to bits with its tillers. You see, the head was crushed, with resulting expulsion of brain matter; from the thoracic cavity there was a generalized and random expulsion of shreds of lung particles and other visceral matter that even Fumagalli, our medical examiner, was hard put to identify. One hand lay thirty feet from the body, an arm was ripped loose, the legs were bent in a manner that defies nature roundly, and have, therefore, clearly been shattered in numerous places. The stomach has been twisted into an array of bloody coils and . . .”
“That'll do!” shouted the magistrate. “What, is this your idea of fun?”
Rocco smiled. “Sir, you requested a detailed description of what we have up there, and I'm just providing you with it.”
Maurizio Baldi nodded repeatedly, looking around him as if in search of a question to ask or an answer to give. “I'll be at the courthouse. I'll see you around. Let's hope that this was an accidental death.”
“Let's hope so, but I don't believe it.”
“Because I have a sense about it. I haven't had a lot of luck in a while now.”
“You're telling me. The last thing I'm looking for is a murder case underfoot.”
The investigating magistrate glanced at the deputy police chief. “Can I give you a piece of advice?”
“If what you say is true and this is not an accident, you'll have to work up here. Dressed the way you are, there's a good chance you'll develop frostbite, then gangrene, and we'll have to amputate your hands and feet.”
Rocco nodded. “Thanks for the advice.”
The magistrate looked Rocco in the eye. “I know you, Dottor Schiavone. I know lots of things about you.” Then he narrowed his eyes. “So let me warn you: avoid pulling any of your bullshit.”
“I've never pulled any.”
“I happen to have different information.”
“We'll see you on the banks of the River Don, Dottore.”
“Don't make me laugh.”
Without bothering to shake hands with the magistrate, Rocco went back to the car, where Pierron was waiting for him. Maurizio Baldi, on the other hand, walked to the base of the cableway. Still, under that fur hat, a faint smile had played briefly across his face.
“That's Dottor Baldi, isn't it?” asked Pierron. Rocco said nothing. He didn't need to. “He's half crazy, did you know that?” asked Italo as they got into the car.
“You feel like putting this thing in gear and getting me out of here, or do I have to call a taxi?”
Pierron obeyed immediately.
It's forty-five minutes past midnight. A person can't come home half-frozen at forty-five minutes past midnight. The minute I open the door I realize that I left the lights on. In the hall and in the bathroom. Forty-five minutes past midnight and I look down at my half-frozen feet. Shoes and socks aren't worth keeping. It doesn't matter; I have three other pairs of desert boots. My big toe is still black. That idiot D'Intino. I'll have to get him transferred, get him transferred as soon as possible. It's a question of my psychophysical equilibrium. If I've ever had such a thing.
I turn on the water. I slip my feet into it. It's hotâboiling hot. Only it takes a good three minutes before I can even tell how hot it is. I run hot water over my ankles, between my toes, and even over my black toenail. At least that doesn't hurt.
“Keep that up and you'll get chilblains.”
I turn around.
It's Marina. In her nightgown. I think I must have woken her up. If there's one thing that annoys me (one thing? there are thousands), it's when I wake up my wife. She sleeps like a rock, but she seems to have a sixth sense when she hears me up and about.
“Ciao, my love.”
She looks at me with her sleepy gray eyes. “You woke me up,” she says.
I know. “I know. Sorry.”
She leans on the doorjamb, arms folded across her chest. She's ready to listen. She wants to know more. “We found a corpse in the middle of a ski run, buried in the snow. In Champoluc. A tremendous pain in the ass, my love.”
“Does that mean you're going to be staying up there for a while?”
“Not on your life. It's an hour's drive. Let's just hope it turns out to be a case of accidental death.”
Marina looks at me. I keep my feet submerged in the bidet, which smokes like a pot of spaghetti. “Sure, but tomorrow morning you're buying yourself a pair of decent shoes. Otherwise, in a couple of days they'll have to amputate your feet for gangrene.”
“The investigating magistrate said the same thing. Anyway, if there's one thing I hate, it's sensible shoes.”
“Have you eaten?”
“A piece of stale pizza on the way.”
Marina has vanished behind the door. She's gone to bed. I dry my feet and go into the kitchen. I hate this furnished apartment. The kitchen is the only decent room in the apartment. I wish I could understand the way other people live. Most of their apartments and homes are furnished in a way that evokes pity, nothing else. Only in the kitchen do they spend vast sums, furnishing the place with electric appliances of all kinds: ovens, microwaves, and dishwashers like something out of the Starship
Instead, in the living room, arte povera and paintings of clowns hanging on the walls.
It's a mystery.
Every once in a while, I compare it with my home, in Rome. On the Janiculum Hill. I look out over the city, and on a windy day, when the air is clear, I can see St. Peter's, Piazza Venezia, and the mountains in the distance. Furio suggested I should rent it out. Instead of leaving it empty. But I just can't bring myself to do it. I can't stand the idea of strangers walking over the parquet floors that Marina chose, or opening the drawers of the Indian credenzas that we bought years ago in Viterbo. To say nothing of the bathrooms. Strangers' asses planted on my toilet, in my bath, strange faces admiring their reflections in my Mexican mirrors. It's out of the question. I get myself a bottle of cool water. Otherwise I'll wake up in the middle of the night with a throat and tongue that resemble two pieces of sandpaper.
Marina is under the blankets. As always, she's reading the dictionary.
“Isn't it a little late for reading?”
“It's the only way I can get to sleep.”
“What's the new word for today?”
Marina has a little black notebook that she keeps in her lap with a pencil. She opens to her bookmark and reads. “Stitchâtransitive verb: To sew or embroider something. It can also be used of one who sews with no particular enthusiasm.” She sets down her notebook.
The mattress is comfortable. It's called memory foam. A material developed by NASA for astronauts in the sixties. It envelops you like a glove because it remembers the shape of your body. That's what it says in the pamphlet that came with it.
“Could you say that I'm stitching in Aosta?” I ask Marina.
“No. You're not a tailor. I'm the one who knows how to sew.”
The mattress is comfortable. But the bed is cold as ice. I wrap myself around Marina. Looking for a little heat. But her side is as cold as mine.
I close my eyes.
And I finally put an end to this shitty day.
The telephone drilled through the silence that double-pane windows and the absence of traffic gave to Deputy Police Chief Schiavone's apartment on Rue Piave. Rocco leaped like a hooked bass and opened his eyes wide. Despite the scream of the cell phone on his nightstand, he was still able to gather his thoughts: it was morning, he was at home, in his own bed after spending the night out in the snow. He wasn't actually lying underneath Eva Mendes, and she wasn't actually wearing nothing but a pair of dizzyingly high stiletto heels and dancing like a sinuous serpent, tossing her hair to and fro. That image was nothing but a cobweb that the telephone had scorched with its deranged shrieks.
“Who's busting my balls at seven in the morning?”
Rocco smiled as he ran one hand over his face. “Sebastiano! How you doing?”
“Fine, fine.” And now his friend's croupy voice had become recognizable. “Sorry if I woke you up.”
“I haven't heard from you in months!”
“Four months and ten days, but who's counting?”
“How are you doing?”
“What are you up to?”
“I'm coming up north.”
Rocco shifted comfortably on the memory foam mattress. “You're coming up? When?”
“Tomorrow night. I'll be on the seven o'clock train from Turin. Are you going to be around?”
“Of course I will. I'll meet you at the station.”
“Excellent. Will it be cold up there?”
“What can I tell you, Seba? Bone-chilling cold.”
“All right, then I'll wear a down jacket.”
“And insulated shoesâtake my word for it,” Rocco added.
“I don't have those. What kind of shoes do you wear up there?”
“A pair of Clarks desert boots.”
“Are they insulated?”
“No. Which is why I'm telling you to wear a pair of insulated shoes. My feet are like a couple of ice cubes.”
“Then why don't you get yourself a pair?”
“I can't stand the things.”
“Well, you do what you like. I'm going to swing by Decathlon and get a pair. Soâsee you tomorrow?”
“See you tomorrow.”
And Sebastiano hung up the phone.
Rocco dropped his cell phone on his down jacket. If Sebastiano Cecchetti, known to his friends as Seba, was coming to Aosta, then matters were becoming distinctly interesting.
When Rocco walked into police headquarters at 8:15
Special Agent Michele Deruta walked up to him immediately. He was moving his tiny feet as fast as his two-hundred-plus pounds allowed him, and he was panting like an old steam locomotive. His chin was sweaty and his thinning white hair, combed specially to conceal his bald spot, was glittering, oiled by who-knows-what pomade.
Rocco stopped suddenly in the middle of the hallway. “Your face and hair are damp. Why damp, Deruta? Did you stick your face into a barrel of oil?”
Deruta pulled out his handkerchief and tried to dry himself off. “I wouldn't know, Dottore.”
“But still, you're damp. Do you take a shower in the morning?”
“Yes, of course.”
“But you don't dry off.”
“No, it's just that before coming to work, I help my wife at her bakery.”
Officer Deruta, getting close to retirement age, started talking about his wife's bakery just outside of town, the work in the predawn hours, the yeast and the flour. Rocco Schiavone paid no attention to a word he said. He just watched his damp, loose lips, his hair streaked with white, and his bovine, bulging eyes.
“What's surprising,” said the deputy police chief, interrupting his special agent's monologue, “is not that you work at your wife's bakery, Deruta. It's that you have a wife at allâthat's what's truly extraordinary.”
Deruta fell silent. It wasn't as if he expected special praise for his daily sacrifice of working a double job, but a kind word, something like “You're wearing yourself out, Deruta. What a good man you are,” or, “If only there were more people like you.” Instead he got nothing. A scornful lack of consideration was all his superior officer could offer him.
“Aside from your double shift, is there anything important you need to tell me?” asked the deputy police chief.
“The chief of police has already called three times this morning. He needs to speak to the press.”
“First he wants to hear from you.”
Rocco nodded and turned away, leaving Deruta there; still, the officer chased after him on his dainty feet. To watch the heft of his 225 pounds bounce along on his size 7Â½ men's shoes, you'd expect him to roll headlong across the floor at any moment. “The chief of police isn't in town, Dottore. There's no point in you going up to see him. You'll have to call him.”
Rocco stopped and turned to look at Officer Deruta. “I see. Well, now, listen to me and listen good. Two things. First of all, start getting some exercise and put yourself on a diet. Second: later on, I've got an important job for you.” He furrowed his brow and looked Deruta in the eye. “Very important. Can I rely on you? Do you feel up to it?”
Deruta's eyes opened wide and became even bigger than usual. “Certainly, Dottore!” he said, and flashed him a bright, thirty-two-tooth smile. Actually, a twenty-four-tooth smile, because there were several gaps. “Certainly, Dottor Schiavone. You can trust me blindly!”
“Why don't you find yourself a dentist!”
“You think?” asked Deruta, covering his mouth with one hand. “Do you know how much they cost? On my salary?”
“Tell your wife to give you the money.”
“That money goes to my daughter, who's studying in Perugia to be a veterinarian.”
“Ah. I get it. You're training your own family doctor. Good thinking!” and he finally walked into his office, slamming the door behind him and blocking out the baffled face of the officer, who stood there, still chewing over what the deputy police chief had meant by his last comment.
In his long-ago high school days, Rocco had read that some philosopher, possibly Hegel, had described the newspaper as “the realist's morning prayer.” But his version of the realist's morning prayer was to roll a fat joint to put his mind at peace with the world and the fact that he'd been forced to live all this distance from Rome for the past four months. And the knowledge that there was no way to get back there.
Not that he had anything against Aosta. Quite the opposite. It was a lovely city, and the people were all nice and polite. But it wouldn't have been any different if they'd stationed him in Salerno, or Mantua, or Venice. The end result would be the same. It wasn't a matter of the destination. What he missed above all was his native city, his existential stomping grounds, his home base.
He pulled the key out from under the framed photograph of Marina on his desk and pulled open the top drawer on the right. Inside sat a wooden box with a dozen handsome fatties, all ready to go. He lit one and, as he twisted the key shut in the drawer lock, took a long, generous drag that went straight to his lungs.
Funny how this small everyday gesture helped to soothe his brain. With the third puff, he gained a sense of lucidity and started planning out his day.
First thing: call the chief of police.
Then the hospital.
And then Nora.
He laid the half-smoked joint down in his ashtray. He was just reaching out for the receiver when the phone started to ring.
It was the police chief.
“Ah, Dottore, I was just about to call you.”
“That's what you always say.”
“But this time it's the truth.”
“Then you're saying all the other times you were lying to me?”
“All right, Schiavone, go ahead.”
“We still don't know a thing. Neither who he was nor how he died.”
“So what am I supposed to tell those guys?”
It wasn't that the chief of police had forgotten the word. It was just that he never named the city's crew of print journalists. He always called them “those guys.” As if he weren't willing to soil his lips with the common noun. He hated them. As far as he was concerned, they were a life form just one step up from the amoeba, the one flat note in the symphony orchestra of creation. That was how he felt about the print journalists. “Those other guys,” television reportersâhe didn't even consider them to be living entities.
That hatred was rooted deep in his personal history. It had been almost eighteen years since his wife left him for an editorialist at
and since then Corsi had been waging a senseless crusade against every member of the guild, irrespective of race, religion, or political creed.
“Dottore, that's what we know. If they would be patientâif the gentlemen of the press would be so good as to patiently await the developments of the investigation . . . Otherwise, unfortunately, I have nothing to add.”
“Those guys won't wait. They're lying in wait, eager to bite me in the ass.”
“That's what you think, Chief. The press around here loves you,” Rocco said seriously.
“What makes you say that?”
“I hear what people say. They respect you. They need you.”
There was a pause. The police chief was mulling over what his underling had just told him. And Rocco smiled, delighted to go on tangling the threads of the relationship between his boss and “those guys.”
“Cut the bullshit. I know those guys. Listen here, Schiavone, would you rule out categorically the possibility that last night's death might have been accidental?”
“With my luck? Yeah, I'd rule it out.”
Andrea Corsi took a deep breath. “When are you going to give me more comforting information?”
“In, let's say, forty-eight hours?”
“Let's say twenty-four!”
“Okay, we make it thirty-six and not another word on the subject.”
“Schiavone, what do you think this is, the flea market at Porta Portese? If I give you twenty-four hours, you have twenty-four hours.”
“I'll call you this time tomorrow morning.”
“I'll believe it when my team Sampdoria wins the national championship.”
“If I haven't called you back in twenty-four hours, then I swear I'll get you free tickets for the GenoaâSampdoria match.”
“I'm the police chief. I don't need your free tickets.”
And he hung up the phone.
“What a pain in the ass!” shouted Rocco, stretching his aching arms. He was looking at a mountain of work, work, work. That's the way life was up here in Aosta. Serious folks, serious city, inhabited by serious people who work hard and mind their own business. And if they got high, at the very most it was with a round of
, local multi-spouted mugs of grappa and coffee, passed around communally. The days of Rome were over, a city where dope was processed as if on an assembly line. The days of decent opportunities, lucky breaksâthose days were over. How much longer would he be forced to languish in this purgatory? He lived in the richest city in Italy, with a per capita income to rival Luxembourg's, but after four months he had nothing to show for it. Then he thought about Sebastiano. Who would be coming up north tomorrow. And if Sebastiano was willing to take a plane all the way to Turin and then a train, in the middle of winter, there must be a reason, and a very good one.
That thought electrified him to the point that he found himself on his feet, rubbing his hands together. Only when his hand was on the door handle did he remember the joint with a homemade filter sitting in his ashtray. He went back, slipped it into his pocket, and finally left his office.
The streets were deserted. The cloudy gray sky promised more snow to come, and the black lava rock mountains seemed ready to swallow the landscape all around them. Italo Pierron drove, eyes on the road, while Rocco was on his cell phone.
“And yet it's not that hard, D'Intino! Listen to me carefully.” Rocco spoke slowly and clearly, as if he were addressing a none-too-bright child. “Find out whether, in the city or province of Aosta, especially in Val d'Ayas, there have been any missing-persons reports, people who didn't come home, you see what I mean? Not just since yesterday; let's say in the past month.” Rocco rolled his eyes. Then, with infinite patience, he repeated the concept: “D'Intino, listen: for the past month. Is that clear? Over and out.”
He punched the
button and looked at Italo, whose eyes were glued to the road ahead. “Tell me, is D'Intino playing with me or is he really that dumb?”
“Where's he from?”
“He's Abruzzese. From the province of Chieti.”
“Doesn't he have any pull down there? No connections? Couldn't he go back down there and stop busting our balls?”