Read Dante's Numbers Online

Authors: David Hewson

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective - General, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Fiction - Mystery, #Detective, #Crime, #Police Procedural, #Police, #Political, #Murder, #Mystery fiction, #English Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Italy, #Motion picture actors and actresses, #Crimes against, #Rome, #Murder - Investigation, #Rome (Italy), #Police - Italy - Rome, #Dante Alighieri, #Motion picture actors and actresses - Crimes against, #Costa, #Nic (Fictitious character), #Costa; Nic (Fictitious character)

Dante's Numbers

ALSO BY DAVID HEWSON

THE NIC COSTA SERIES

A Season for the Dead

The Villa of Mysteries

The Sacred Cut

The Lizard's Bite

The Seventh Sacrament

The Garden of Evil

AND

Lucfer's Shadow

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

—The Divine Comedy, Inferno
, Canto I. Dante Alighieri,
translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A
LLAN PRIME PEERED AT THE WOMAN THEY'D SENT from the studio, pinched his cheeks between finger and thumb the way he always did before makeup, then grumbled, “Run that past me again, will you?”

He couldn't figure out whether she was Italian or not. Or how old, since most of her face was hidden behind a pair of large black plastic-rimmed sunglasses. Even—and this was something Prime normally got out of the way before anything else— whether she was pretty. He'd never seen this one at Cinecittà, and a part of him said he would have noticed, if only in order to ask himself the question:
Should I?

She looked late twenties, a little nervous, in awe of him maybe. But she was dressed so much older, in a severe grey jacket with matching slacks and a prim white shirt, its soft crinkly collar high up on her neck. It was a look out of the movies, he decided. Old movies from back when it was still a crime to be skinny and anything less than elegant. Particularly her hair, a platinum blonde, dyed undoubtedly, pinned behind her taut, stiffly held head in a ponytail that, as she walked into the living room of his apartment, he'd noticed was curled into a tight apostrophe.

It was an effect he found strangely alluring until the connection came to him. Unsmiling, eyes hidden behind heavy shades that kept out the burning July morning, Miss Valdes—although the Spanish name didn't fit at all—resembled one of those cool, aloof women he'd watched in the downtown theatres when he was a kid in New York, rapt before the silver screen. Like a cross between Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, the two full-bodied celluloid blondes he'd first fallen hotly in love with as he squirmed with adolescent lust in the shiny, sticky seats of Manhattan flea pits. He hadn't encountered silent, fixated women like this in the business in three or four decades. The breed was extinct. Real bodies had given way to rake-thin models, exquisite coiffures to impromptu mussed-up messes. The species had moved on, and now he knew what kind of job it did these days.

It made death masks of people. Living people, in his case.

“Signor Harvey say…” she repeated in her slow, deliberate Italian accent, as if she were unsure he quite understood. Her voice was low and throaty and appealing. More Novak than Kelly, he thought.

“Harvey's a drug-addled jerk. He never mentioned anything to me. We've got this opening ceremony tonight, in front of everyone from God down. The biggest and best movie of the decade and I get to do the honours.”

“It must be an honour to be in Signor Tonti's masterpiece.”

Allan Prime took a deep breath. “Without me it'd be nothing. You ever watch
Gordy's Break?”

“I loved that movie,” she replied without hesitation, and he found himself liking the throaty, almost masculine croon in her voice.

“It was a pile of crap. If it wasn't for me, the thing wouldn't have made it outside the queer theatres.”

He truly hated that thing. The movie was the kind of violent fake art-house junk the Academy liked to smile on from time to time just to show it had a brain as well as a heart. He'd played a low-life hood in a homosexual relationship with a local priest who was knifed to death trying to save him. When the clamour petered out, and the golden statue was safely stored somewhere he didn't have to look at it, Allan Prime decided to make movies for people, not for critics. One a year for almost three decades. Nothing that followed gave him another nomination.

The lack of Oscars never bothered Prime too much, most of the time. From the eighties on he'd become more and more bankable, a multimillion-dollar name who always brought in an army of female fans in love with his chiselled Mediterranean looks, trademark wavy dark hair, and that slow, semi-lascivious smile he liked to throw in somewhere along the line.

Except now. He'd tried, and every time he began to crease up for the famed smirk, Roberto Tonti had gone stiff in his director's chair, thrown back his hoary aquiline head with its crown of grey hair like plumed feathers, and howled long and loud with fury.

“This is what I
do
,” Prime had complained one day, when the verbal abuse went too far. He was in costume, a long, grubby medieval gown, standing in front of a blue screen, pretending to deliver some obscure speech to a digitised dragon or some other monster out of a teenage horror fantasy, though he couldn't see a thing except lights and cameras and Roberto Tonti thrashing around in his chair like some ancient, skeletal wraith.

“Not when you work for me,” Tonti screamed at him. “When you work for me, you…”—a stream of impenetrable Italian curses followed—”…you are
mine.
My puppet. My creature. Every day I put my finger up your scrawny, coked-up ass, Allan, and every day I wiggle a little harder till your stupid brain wakes up. Stop acting. Start being.”

Stop acting. Start being.
Prime had lost count of the number of times he'd heard that. He still didn't get it.

Tonti was seventy-three. He looked a hundred and fifty and was terminally ill, with a set of lungs that had been perforated by a lifetime's tobacco. Maybe he'd be dead before the movie got its first showing in the U.S. They all knew that was a possibility. It added to the buzz Simon Harvey's little army of evil PR geckos had been quietly building with their tame hacks.

Allan Prime had already thought through his performance in the director's real-life funeral scene. He'd release one single tear, dab it away with a finger, not a handkerchief, showing he was a man of the people, unchanged by fame. Then, when no one could hear, he'd walk up to the casket and whisper, “Where's that freaking finger
now
, huh?”

Or maybe the old bastard would live forever, long enough to dance on Prime's own grave. There was something creepy, something abnormal about the man, which was, the rumours said, why he'd not sat at the helm of a movie for twenty years, frittering away his talent in the wasteland of TV until
Inferno
came along. Prime gulped a fat finger of single malt, then refilled his glass from the bottle on the table. It was early, but the movie was done, and he didn't need to be out in public until the end of the day. The penthouse apartment atop one of the finest houses in the Via Giulia, set back from the busy Lungotevere with astonishing views over the river to St. Peter's, had been Allan Prime's principal home for almost a year. Tonight it was empty except for him and Miss Valdes.

“This is for publicity, right?” he asked.

“Sì
,” the woman replied, and patted her briefcase like a lawyer sure it contained evidence. She had to be Italian. And the more he looked at her, the more Prime became convinced she wasn't unattractive either, with her full, muscular figure—that always turned him on—and very perfect teeth behind a mouth blazingly outlined in carmine lipstick. “Mr. Harvey say we must have a copy of your face, because we cannot, for reasons of taste, mass-market a version of the real thing. It must be you.”

“I cut myself shaving this morning. Does that matter?”

“I can work with that.”

“Great,” he grumbled. “So where do you want me?”

She took off her oversized sunglasses. Miss Valdes was a looker and Allan Prime was suddenly aware something was starting to twitch down below. She had a large, strong face, quite heavy with makeup for this time of day, as if she didn't just make masks, she liked wearing them herself. The voice, too, now that he thought about it, sounded artificial.
Posed.
As if she wasn't speaking in her natural tongue. Not that this worried him. He was aware of a possibility in her eyes, and that was all he needed.

“On the bed, sir,” Miss Valdes suggested. “It would be best if you were naked. A true death mask is always taken from a naked man.”

“Not that I'm arguing, but why the hell is that?”

The corner of her scarlet mouth turned down in a gesture of meek surprise, one that seemed intoxicatingly Italian to him.

“We come into the world that way. And leave it, too. You're an actor.”

He watched, rapt, as her fleshy, muscular tongue ran very deliberately over those scarlet lips.

“I believe you call it… being in character.”

He wondered how Roberto Tonti would direct a scene like this.

“Will it hurt?”

“Of course not!” She appeared visibly offended by the idea. “Who would wish to hurt a star?”

“You'd be surprised,” Prime grumbled. This curious woman would be truly amazed, if she only knew.

She smoothed down the front of her jacket, opened the briefcase, and peered into it with a professional, searching gaze before beginning to remove some items Allan Prime didn't recognise.

“First a little… discomfort,” she declared. “Then…” That carmine smile again, one Allan Prime couldn't stop staring at, although there was something about it that nagged him. Some thing familiar he couldn't place. “Then we are free.”

Miss Valdes
—Carlotta
Valdes, he recalled the first name the doorman had used when he'd called up to announce her arrival-took out a pair of rubber gloves and slipped them onto her strong, powerful hands, like those of a nurse or a surgeon.

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