Authors: Antonio Manzini
“Italo,” he said suddenly, and the officer's Adam's apple jerked up and down a couple of times. “Italo, do you like your job?”
The other man's eyes opened wide. A faint hint of a smile appeared on the lipless mouth. He shrugged. “It's a job.”
“How much does a police officer make every month?”
“Not much, Dottore. Not much.”
“And no real schedule, right? Hard to start a family.”
“I'm not interested in a family. I'm fine the way I am. But why are you asking me these questions?”
“To get to know you better. You're a good cop. You know it. But if you ask me, you could do more.”
“More than what I'm doing now?”
“No. Something else. You could really up your game. Take it to another level.” And Rocco fell silent, letting the officer mull over the last thing he'd told him.
“Listen,” he went on, “before we go up to see Luisa Pec, we should swing by the post office.”
“All right. But at this time of day it'll be closed.”
“Don't you worry about that. Just take me there.”
When they pulled up outside the post office, there was a man in his early fifties waiting for them outside the front door. He was wearing a broad-ribbed wool sweater. His cheeks were red, and he was rubbing his hands. Italo stopped the car. As soon as Rocco got out, an icy gust of wind buffeted him. Even if it was broad daylight, the temperature was well below freezing. “Jesus fucking Christ, it's cold as a bitch out!” the deputy police chief muttered under his breath. “You wait here for me!” he said to Italo, closing the door of the BMW behind him. Then he went over to the man on the steps, who immediately extended his hand.
“I'm Riccardo Peroni. The postmaster here. I received a phone call from police headquarters . . .”
“Yes, yes,” said Rocco, shaking his hand. “Deputy Police Chief Schiavone. Shall we go in? It's freezing out here!”
The postmaster opened the glass door and let Rocco in.
“Go ahead and lock up behind us,” the detective said to him once they were inside.
Peroni did as he was told. “What can I do for you?”
The empty office had no lights on except for the “next customer in line” lights over the service windows; the trash cans were full of ripped-up forms and receipts. On a set of shelves were the products that the post office sold but that had nothing to do with the postal service: cookbooks, children's books, a couple of best sellers, pens and markers.
Even the post office moonlights on the side to make ends meet
, Rocco mused. It reminded him that he still needed to pay last month's electric bill. He felt a stab of regret. He could have remembered and taken care of at least this one small husbandly duty.
“I read something in a book and it stuck with me.”
“What's that?” asked the postmaster with a courteous smile.
“The post office is like your fingernails and hair. When you die, they keep on growing. Same thing with letters and bills. They keep on being delivered, even if the recipient is already dead and buried. True, no?”
Peroni thought it over for a minute. “I'd never considered it in those terms.”
“So from today on, all the mail that should have gone to Signor Leone MiccichÃ¨? You'll forward it to me at police headquarters. As quickly as you possibly can.”
The postmaster turned serious. “What? Leone? He's dead?”
“You have the gift of observation.”
“Yesterday. Up on the ski runs.”
The postmaster turned pale. “That was the corpse you found?”
“All his. Head to foot, every bit of it.”
“Poor Luisa . . .”
“Yes, it's a shame. So you understand? And listen to me: not a word to a soul. Have I made myself clear?”
Peroni looked at the floor, still upset by the news.
Schiavone brought him brusquely back to the real world. “Hey! Did you understand what I said?”
“Eh? Ah, yes. I understood. Leone's mailâ”
“Should be forwarded to me. That's right.”
Peroni opened his eyes wide, an indication that his brain had started to work again. “But I'm not sure about this. Is it strictly legal?”
“No. I really don't think it is,” the deputy police chief replied calmly.
“Then what you're asking me to do is . . . ?”
“Leone's mail. Forwarded to my office, at police headquarters, strictly personal.”
“I'll have to see whether . . . That is, I have certain duties. I can hardly promise you that . . .”
Peroni didn't see it coming. He only felt the pain on his cheek at the same time that his head swiveled around in a thirty-degree arc to his left. He put his hand up to touch his cheek right where Rocco had punched him unexpectedly. “Now, then,” the deputy police chief said calmly. “I'm going to repeat it politely. Are you going to let me have MiccichÃ¨'s mail or am I going to make your life a living hell?”
The postmaster nodded in fright. Then Rocco handed the man his card. “It's all written down right here. And thanks for your help.” He took a couple of steps toward the glass door, seized the handle, but then stopped. He stood there as if a thought had suddenly crossed his mind. He turned around and looked at Peroni, who was standing forlorn with Rocco's card in one hand while the other hand tenderly caressed his cheek. “Peroni. Not a word about this understanding of ours to a soul. If not, I'll be back. Have I made myself clear?”
“Have a good day.”
To get up to the slopes, they had to take a six-seat cable car. It looked something like a pea pod attached to an enormous steel cable by a metal hook. Rocco and Pierron got into pea pod number 69, which shot off uphill at top speed, taking them straight up to an elevation of 6,500 feet. The man running the cableway had stared intently at Rocco's clothing, so completely out of place, focusing on his Clarks desert boots for a good ten seconds at least, but then, locked up in his work and his mountain man's tendency to remain silent, he had said nothing. He'd simply double-checked the closure of the double door and then turned to help the next passengers.
“Wait, are people skiing today?” asked Rocco, peering out of the Plexiglas windows.
“Only on the higher-up pistes. The one farther downhill, where we found MiccichÃ¨, is closed.”
The cabin was already brushing over the tips of the fir trees below. The forest, wrapped in a dense and impenetrable drizzly fog, seemed to have come out of a Celtic saga. Rocco looked down at the blanket of snow between the rocks and trees. There were pine needles, but especially tracks. Large and small.
“Birds, hares, ibexes, and chamoix,” said Italo Pierron, “all of them on the hunt for food.”
“Are there weasels too?”
“Sure. In the winter, they turn white. Why?”
“I was just wondering.”
“Yeah, weasels are clever. They camouflage themselves.”
“Really?” asked Rocco, staring into Italo Pierron's eyes intensely until he blushed, unable to fathom his superior officer's intentions. Rocco was studying him, that much was clear. But he couldn't piece out the reason.
“It's important to camouflage yourself, Italo. If you want to survive in a world of predators.”
Suddenly the sooty slush around them fell away, and a bright, blinding sun lit up the landscape. Rocco stood open-mouthed. They'd emerged from the clouds, as if in an airplane. Now the sky was blue, and all around the snowy alpine peaks surrounded them like a crown. They looked like so many islands jutting up from the grayish, foamy waters of a lake. Rocco squinted to see through the dazzling light. “So pretty,” he said spontaneously, “so pretty.”
“Right?” agreed Italo.
The snow, like an immense lava flow of whipped cream, covered the high plateaus, the cliffs, and the boulders. To look down on it like this, the snow didn't even seem particularly cold. In fact, Rocco felt the urge to jump in and roll around in it for fifteen minutes. Even pick some up and eat it. It must be soft and sweet. It glittered with a thousand sharp-edged points of light, and if he stared too hard, he felt stabbing pain in his eyes and his head began to spin. The black slate roofs of the little huts and cottages were submerged in snow, and if it hadn't been for the smoking chimney pots, it would have been impossible to see them at all. They lay buried in that sea of white, as absolutely clean and candid as so many flocks grazing happily, lazy and somnolent.
At last the cable car reached its destination. Rocco got out, pleased that he hadn't felt even a hint of vertigo.
Outside the cableway station, the snow was deep, and the sun had melted it a little. Skiers dressed in a dizzying array of colors, so that they resembled a cluster of carnival masks, were sprawled out at the tables of a chalet bar, drinking in the day's last rays of light, sipping foamy goblets of beer. Others headed down to the slopes with skis, snowshoes, and helmets thrown over their shoulders, walking like so many golems in large, noisy snowboots. Rocco was reminded of the damned souls in some Dantean circle of hell.
“Are you saying they pay for all this?” he asked Italo.
“Deputy Police Chief Schiavone,” said Pierron, unbelievably nailing Rocco's correct rank, “have you ever tried skiing?”
“Then take it from me that if you tried even once, you'd understand. Just like a little while ago on the cableway. Did you see? Suddenly sun and sky and snow. The same thing on skis. The same sensation.”
But Rocco wasn't listening anymore. He was comparing the snow on the ground with his shoes, so ill suited to the situation.
“Don't worry, Dottore, we only have to walk about a hundred yards. Luigi is waiting for us.”
“The head snowcat operator. The one who took us up last night. Luigi Bionaz. He's going to take us to Cuneaz. You see that valley down there?”
Rocco looked. Four hundred yards ahead, in the midst of runs busy with overjoyed skiers, there was a collection of snow-covered humps. “Yes, I see. What of it?”
“Cuneaz is down there, behind those rises in the slope. In the summer, you can walk it. But in the winter you'd need snowshoes.”
“You'd need what?”
“Snowshoes . . . those rackets on your feet. You know what I mean?”
“Ah. Like Umberto Nobile?”
“Forget about it, Italo. Let's go see Luigi.”
Barely fifty feet outside the cableway station, there was an enormous rock-and-timber structure off to one side. This was the snowcat garage. In the distance, outside a glass door with the ski school logo, the instructors were loitering on wooden benches in the sun, all of them wearing red jackets and black pants. Italo raised one hand to catch someone's attention. Rocco, on the other hand, looked down at his Clarks desert boots, which resembled two waterlogged sewer rats.
“Hey there!” shouted someone Rocco couldn't really see because of the glare.
“Look, there's Luigi. Let's go,” said Italo, “he's waiting for us.”
Walking laboriously through the deep snow, dressed in his loden green overcoat and gray corduroy trousers, under the inquisitive gazes of the skiers, Rocco finally made it to the door of the garage. Luigi Bionaz was there, waiting for them.
, Commissario, don't you remember me?”
The night before, Luigi's face had been nothing but an indistinct mass beneath a heavy cap with earflaps. Now, in the light of day, Rocco was finally able to make out his features. The first thing Rocco noticed was his eyes, such a pale blue that they looked like those of a sled dog, a husky. High cheekbones, a strong jaw, and clean white teeth that seemed to be reflecting the surrounding snow. If Luigi Bionaz had been born in America, he could have become an action movie star. He had the face and he had the bodyâeverything necessary to drive the women of half a hemisphere mad with desire.
“I heard. Leone. I'm so sorry. Was it an accident?” he asked as he rolled himself a cigarette.
Rocco didn't say a word, and Luigi understood that this was not the time to ask any other questions. So he smiled and slapped his hand down twice on the seat of a 4x4 all-terrain vehicle. “No snowcat today. We're going on this.”
It was a quad, a sort of four-wheeled motorcycle. Rocco had driven one many years before, on the dunes of Sharm el-Sheikh, in the famous motorcade through the desert. He'd overturned the quad and broken the phalanx bone of his wife's middle finger.
“It's faster,” Luigi added. “Theoretically, we aren't allowed to take this thing onto the pistes.” He lit his cigarette, and the tip glowed red and dropped burning ashes onto the snow. “But you're from the police, no? So who's going to tell us what to do?”
“True. But you could have come all the way down and picked us up at the cableway terminal, no?” said Rocco. “My feet are drenched from walking up here!”
Luigi laughed merrily. “Dottore, you're going to have to get some proper equipment for the mountains!” replied the head snowcat operator as he climbed onto the quad.
“So that I can look like a clown, the way they do?” and he pointed to the skiers with his nose. “Oh, give me a break.”
He got on behind Luigi. Pierron got on, too.
“Luigi, will this thing carry three people?”
Luigi ignored the deputy police chief's question. He started the engine and, with a half smile and his cigarette clenched between his teeth, he revved it and took off.
The four studded tires got their teeth right into the snow and, leaving a huge spray of slush in the air behind them, shot the vehicle uphill toward the ski runs at a dizzying velocity. Rocco watched the vehicle narrowly miss skiers as needles of ice stung his face. The wheels drifted, then came back into alignment, only to veer suddenly as the vehicle slid across a sheet of ice. He could feel the quad wobble, career off to one side, roar, plunge into the snow, and then recover, only to lurch forward again in a terrifying plunge, worse than the pitching and yawing of a speedboat in an ocean squall.