Authors: Marco Vichi
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime
D E A T H
A N D Â Â T H E
O L I V E Â Â G R O V E
An Inspector Bordelli Mystery
M A R C O Â Â V I C H I
NEW YORK LONDON
for Franco, my father
Our every act of knowledge begins with a feeling
To the vain, time turns all remedies into water
â Anonymous, 21st century
Florence, April 1964
At nine o'clock in the evening a tiny little man no taller than a child came through the front door of the police station, out of breath. He pressed up against the windowpane of the guard's booth, yelling politely that he wanted to speak with the inspector. Mugnai, inside, told him to calm down and asked him which inspector he was referring to. The dwarf squashed a dirty hand against the glass and yelled:
âInspector Bordelli!' as if Bordelli were the only inspector in the place.
âWhat if he's not here?' asked Mugnai.
âI saw his Beetle outside,' said the little man. In the end he was let in. Mugnai gestured to his colleague Taddei, a burly sort with bovine eyes who was new on the job. Taddei got up with effort from his chair and, with the dwarf following behind, started climbing the stairs. At the end of a long corridor on the first floor, he stopped in front of Inspector Bordelli's door.
âWait here,' he said, glancing at the tiny stranger's shabby shoes, which were still smeared with mud after a cursory cleaning. Then he knocked, disappeared behind the door, and came back out a few seconds later.
âGo on in,' he said.
The little man hurriedly slipped inside and Taddei heard Bordelli say:
âCasimiro, what on earth are you doing here?' Then the door suddenly closed. Unsure, Taddei scratched his head and knocked again. He stuck his head respectfully inside.
âNeed anything, Inspector?'
âNo, thanks. You can go now.'
Casimiro, repeatedly swallowing, waited silently for the ox to shut the door. He declined a cigarette from the inspector and remained standing in front of the desk.
âWhat's wrong, Casimiro? You seem agitated.'
âI've just seen something, Inspector, up Fiesole way â¦ I was walking through a field andâ'
âIf you don't want to smoke, have a beer at least,' said Bordelli, pointing towards the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet on the other side of the office. âI'll have one too, please,' he added.
Casimiro dashed over and got the bottles, setting them down nervously on the desk. He was anxious to speak. Bordelli calmly opened the beers, flipping off the bottle-caps with his house keys, and passed one to Casimiro. The little man drank half of it in a single draught, grew a bit calmer, and finally sat down. The inspector avidly took two swigs, splashing his shirt, then set the bottle down on some of the papers strewn all across his desk. Hanging on the wall behind him was a dusty photo of the President of the Republic, with a horseshoe appended from the same nail. The air in the office always smelled of rotten cardboard and mushrooms, Bordelli thought.
Casimiro was squirming in his chair. He was wearing a child's jacket that was actually too big for him. Bordelli studied the dwarf's face, which was small and narrow, as if it had been crushed in a closing door. He'd known him since the end of the war, and the little man had always had the same tragic, nervous look about him. One rarely saw him laugh. At most he might make a bad joke about his physical condition and then snigger. Bordelli in his way was fond of him and had even, on occasion, invented phoney jobs for him as an informer, so he could give him a little money without making him feel too embarrassed.
âI was passing that way by chance, Inspector â¦ If I hadn't seen it with my own eyesâ'
âSorry to interrupt, Casimiro, but the second of the month was my birthday.'
âHappy birthday â¦'
âIs that all?'
âWhat do you want me to say, Inspector?'
Bordelli felt like chatting that evening, perhaps because he was very tired â¦ He could only imagine what sort of rubbish Casimiro had to tell him.
âAren't you going to ask me how old I am?' he said.
âHow old are you?'
âFifty-four, Casimiro, and I have no desire to grow old. Fifty-four, and still, when I go home, I have no one to kiss me on the lips.'
âWhy don't you get a dog, Inspector?' the dwarf said in all seriousness. Bordelli smiled and slowly crushed his cigarette butt in the already full ashtray. Picking up his beer, he leaned back in his chair. The bottle had left a damp ring on a report.
âJust think, Casimiro, maybe, at this very moment, in some part of the world, the woman I have always been looking for has just been born. But if she was born today, by the time she's twenty I'll be a dotty old bed-wetter. And even if she was born forty years ago, it was probably in Algeria, Poland or Australia â¦ Fat chance I'll ever run into her â¦ Do you ever think about such things?'
âInspector, can I tell you what I saw?'
âOf course, forgive me,' said Bordelli, resigned.
Casimiro set his beer down on the desk and stood up, growing agitated again.
âI was walking through a field and almost tripped over a dead body,' he said in a single breath, for fear the inspector might interrupt him again.
âAre you sure?' asked Bordelli.
âOf course I'm sure. He was dead, Inspector. Blood was dripping from his mouth.'
âWhere was this?'
âJust past Fiesole,' Casimiro said darkly.
Bordelli stood up and, with one hand, grabbed his cigarettes and matches and, with the other, took his jacket from the back of his chair.
âWhat were you doing up there at this hour, Casimiro?'
âI was just passing through,' the dwarf said with lying eyes.
âLet's go and have a look at this corpse,' said Bordelli, walking out of the office.
âBut what about my bicycle?' Casimiro asked, trotting beside him.
âWe'll load it into my car.'
Reaching the end of the Viale Volga, they turned on to the road that led up to Fiesole. Past San Domenico they began to see the city below, a great dark blot dotted with points of light. A pile of cow shit with little candles on top, thought Bordelli.
Casimiro's short legs were stretched over the seat, his worn-out shoes barely reaching the edge. He was quiet and fiddling with a good-luck charm, a little plastic skeleton barely an inch long, with two tiny pieces of red glass in the eye sockets. He'd been carrying it with him for years, and Bordelli had stopped ribbing him about it some time ago.
Past the piazza at Fiesole, the little man said to turn down the Via del Bargellino, and a few hundred yards on, he began to look around nervously.
âStop here, Inspector,' he said suddenly, jumping to his feet on the car seat. Bordelli parked the Beetle in an unpaved clearing and got out. Casimiro hopped down, more agitated than ever.
âI'll lead the way, Inspector.' He climbed up the small, dilapidated retaining wall beside the road and began to penetrate the low, dense vegetation. Bordelli followed behind him, looking around with care. High in the sky, a big bright moon cast a lugubrious glow on the countryside, but in compensation made it easy to see. To the right was a large, untilled field with a few now withered vines and several ivy-smothered trees. It seemed a shame to see a field reduced to such a state.
âYou said you were passing this way by chance?' Bordelli asked, laughing.
âSort of,' said Casimiro, continuing hurriedly through the brush.
âI haven't got a lira in my pocket, Inspector, what am I supposed to do?'
âWhat do you mean?'
âWell, now and then I have to go out and look for vegetables.'
âAround this time there should be some beans.'
âIt's still a bit early for that. For the moment, there's only cabbage â¦ Come, let's turn here.'
âIt's probably full of toads,' Bordelli said in disgust, hoping not to step on any. The grass was tall and damp and he could already feel his shoes getting wet. It had rained all week, and every so often he stepped in a mud puddle. The air felt almost cold. Spring couldn't make up its mind to arrive.
âIs it much farther?'
âIt's down there,' Casimiro said softly, his little feet practically running. After passing through a muddy thicket they came out into a rather well-tended olive grove. The ground was densely carpeted with a short grassy weed. After all the mud, it was a pleasure to walk on. The light of the moon was so bright that their shadows were sharply outlined on the ground. And everything in shadow was all the darker.
âWe're almost there,' the little man whispered, slowing his pace. Farther ahead, towering above them, was an eighteenth-century villa, a massive structure built on a steep embankment. The garden loomed sheer over the field, supported by a high, curved wall reinforced by great buttresses covered with ivy. The stone balustrade that ran along the top of the wall was the boundary between two worlds. The shutters on the villa's windows were all closed, and no light could be seen filtering through. Casimiro stopped a few yards from the wall, in front of a gigantic olive tree, and looked around in disbelief.
âThe dead man was here, Inspector â¦ I swear he was here!'
Bordelli threw up his hands.
âApparently he woke up,' he said, laughing. Casimiro still couldn't believe it and kept walking round the olive tree. At a certain point he bent down to pick something up.
âLook, Inspector,' he said, holding up a bottle. Bordelli grabbed it by the neck. It was made of colourless glass and rather small, and there was still a bit of dark liquid at the bottom. It was clean and could not have been outside for very long. He read the label:
Cognac de Maricourt, 1913
. He didn't know it. He pulled out the cork and sniffed it. It smelled like good cognac. He overcame the urge to have a sip and put the cork back in.
âThe body was right here! I'm not crazy!' Casimiro insisted. âMaybe he was only drunk.' The inspector put the bottle in his jacket pocket and, with the little man following behind him, approached the buttresses. They were huge and well constructed. Seen from there, the stone wall seemed even higher.
âWhat did this dead man look like?' Bordelli asked wearily.
âI didn't get a good look at him â¦ I was walking and, suddenly, there he was in front of me, and I ran away â¦ All I saw was that he had blood around hisâ'
âQuiet!' said Bordelli, pricking up his ears. All at once they heard the sound of hurried footsteps and panting, and on the moon-whitened turf appeared the silhouette of a short-haired dog running towards them. The most visible part of it was its teeth, which shone like wet marble. The inspector barely had time to pull out his Beretta and shoot the animal square in the mouth. The Doberman yelped and its feet gave out from under it, but in the momentum of its charge it rolled forward into Bordelli's legs, knocking him to the ground. It cried out again, kicking its feet in the air for a few seconds, then drew its legs in and stopped moving.
âShit â¦' said Bordelli.
âWe're lucky you're a good shot,' said Casimiro, voice quavering slightly.
âWhere the hell are you?' said Bordelli, unable to see him.
âUp here, Inspector.' Casimiro had climbed up an olive tree and was already coming down. Bordelli put his pistol away and got up. He looked around. Half his jacket was wet and his trousers were spattered with blood. He cleaned himself as best he could with a handkerchief, then knelt forward to have a better look at the Doberman. Its muzzle was a bloody pulp, and it had no collar.
âYou know, Casimiro, I don't like the look of this one bit,' said Bordelli, looking up, but the little man was no longer there. He glanced around and saw him running through the olive trees towards the woods. He decided to let him go. He took a few steps back to get a full view of the villa. It was still all dark. The gunshot apparently hadn't woken anyone up. The house was either uninhabited, he thought, or whoever lived there was a heavy sleeper. He lit a cigarette and headed towards the woods. When he reached the car, he found the dwarf sitting on the bonnet, arms folded round his legs, eyes still flashing with fear.