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Authors: Gianrico Carofiglio

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BOOK: Temporary Perfections
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My own interpretation was that he was about as innocent as Al Capone and that if I succeeded in winning an acquittal (which struck me as a pretty remote possibility), eventually I’d have to answer to a higher authority for it.

He had insisted on giving me a ride to Lecce, in his car, a Lexus that probably cost as much as a decent-size apartment and was nearly as big. It didn’t take long for me to regret bitterly having accepted the offer. De Santis drove with all the caution and care of a Mumbai taxi driver, while blasting a succession of Italian pop hits from the seventies—the kind of stuff the U.S. could have used at Guantánamo to extract confessions from al-Qaeda hardliners.

We pulled onto the highway, and De Santis immediately accelerated to a cruising speed of one hundred five miles per hour. He took over the left-hand passing lane and would not give it up. If a car ahead of us failed to move out of his lane quickly enough, De Santis hit the horn—which sounded like a tugboat foghorn—and flicked his headlights so hard and fast that the car must have looked like an ambulance.

Hey, you psycho, slow it down. I don’t want to die this young.

“Signore De Santis, why don’t you take your foot off the pedal a little? We have plenty of time.”

“I like going fast, Counselor. You’re not scared, are you? This old bombshell can hit one hundred forty.”

I’ll take your word for it. Slow down, you old crackpot.

“I have two great passions in life,” he said, and he slapped the steering wheel. “Fast cars and fast women. How old are you, Counselor?”

“Forty-five.”

“Lucky man. I’m seventy. At your age, I was wild.”

“What do you mean?”

“With women. I never let one get away. A waitress—I hit that. My secretary—I hit that. My friend’s wife—I hit that. Once even a nun. I was—what’s the word?—relentless.”

You’re still relentless, I thought to myself, thinking of the road still ahead and the fact that I would be spending at least the next four hours with him.

“It’s not like I’m not getting any now. I’m still hitting it regularly, but when I was younger …”

That’s a cleaned-up version of what he said. He was much more clinical, and he frequently gestured at his personal equipment. I nodded understandingly, with an idiotic, bland expression of tolerance painted on my face, while deep down I did my best to repress a vision of myself in my seventies with a dyed mustache, telling someone about how I still hit that.

“Are you married, Counselor?”

“No. I used to be, but not anymore.”

“So you’re a free man. Free and easy,” he said.

At this point, I was afraid he’d ask me whether I, too, was relentless. Whether I hit it with, say, my cleaning woman. In my case, the cleaning woman in question was Signora Nennella, a stout woman who stood four feet eleven inches in her stocking feet and was in her mid-sixties, to say nothing of sagging breasts that were barely contained by her D-cup bra.

The whole scene was disturbing. I tried to find refuge in a Zen place in the recesses of my mind where I could filter out the disturbing stimuli from the outside world. I told myself that if I found my Zen place, it would all be over before I knew it.

De Santis noticed my silence and assumed it must be due to a health issue. Something that might lead me to consult a urologist.

“What, you have some kind of problem?”

“Problem?” I was thinking the time had come to be a little more selective in choosing my clients.

He turned to look at me, completely ignoring the fact that the highway was hurtling toward us at one hundred ten miles per hour now. He looked down at my lap and winked. The melodic guitar and sappy vocals of the Teppisti dei Sogni filled the interior of the car like a mist of maple syrup.

“So, you’re okay down there?”

Pull over at the first rest area and let me out, you old psycho. After that, feel free to drive at top speed into a bridge or an oak tree, as long as you’re careful not to involve innocent third parties.

That’s not what I said.

“Just fine, thanks.”

De Santis didn’t seem to consider the answer satisfactory, so he kept up his questioning, pursuing the same line of inquiry.

“What about your prostate? You getting your prostate checked?”

“No, I’m not, to tell you the truth.”

“Have a doctor look at it, I’ll bet you anything he finds it’s enlarged. If you ask me, you don’t have it looked at
because you’re afraid of what they do. The urologist puts on a pair of latex gloves and then he takes his finger—”

“I know what a urologist does.”

A few minutes of silence ensued. It seemed that our discussion of a visit to the urologist might have given my client pause. I hoped in vain that the silence would last until we reached Lecce. No such luck.

“Have you ever taken Viagra?”

“No.”

“I have some on me at all times, even though my doctor tells me not to overdo it, because it can be bad for the heart. But I say, what better way to die than to have a heart attack right in the middle of a good lay.”

And so it went, on and on, as we got to Lecce and entered the courtroom. Only when the trial actually got underway was De Santis forced to stop talking. We listened to the testimony of the prosecution witnesses. We listened to the analysis of the prosecutor’s expert witness, and then the court adjourned for another session to hear the testimony of the defense witnesses. By that point, if I had ever had any doubts, I was quite certain that my client would be found guilty. For the sake of my own mental health—we still had the whole return trip ahead of us—I decided that the better part of valor would be to keep that information to myself and not share it with the man who always hit it.

When we finally got back to Bari that afternoon, I asked him to drop me off in front of a travel agency across town from my office. This wasn’t the agency our law firm normally employed. I bought two round-trip tickets to Rome
and I reserved two rooms in a hotel near Piazza del Popolo. I explained to the agent—and I’m pretty sure she could not have cared less—that I was going on a business trip with a colleague. It finally dawned on me that I was behaving as furtively as a criminal about to go on the lam.

As I was leaving the travel agency, Quintavalle called me.

“Counselor.”

“Damiano, any news?”

“I have some information that might be useful to you.”

“I’m all ears.”

After a couple of seconds of silence, I realized how stupid I had been. I thought back on all the times that I had laughed at the stupidity of people who said things on the phone they shouldn’t have, only to wind up in handcuffs.

“Or maybe we should meet to discuss it in person?”

“Shall I come to your office?”

“I’m on the street, over near Corso Sonnino. If it’s convenient to you, and you’re not too far away, maybe you could swing by and meet me in a café.”

“I’m on my Vespa. How about we meet in ten minutes at the Riviera?”

“Okay.”

24.

It only took me a few minutes to get to the Bar Riviera, which was virtually empty at that hour of the afternoon. I went upstairs to the terrace and took a table with an unbroken view of the Adriatic Sea. This was exactly where I used to sit when I was in college. I’d come here with my friends and spend endless, crazy, wonderful afternoons talking.

One of those afternoons in particular surfaced from my memory. We had just finished a seminar in political economics, and after wandering around town for half an hour we ended up at the Riviera. I’m pretty sure that, as usual, we started off talking about girls. Somehow, I’m not sure how, we wandered from that topic to characters from novels—with whom did we identify with most, who would we have most liked to be. Andrea said Athos, Emilio said Philip Marlowe, I said Captain Fracasse, and, lastly, Nicola said that he wanted to be Athos, too. There ensued a lively exchange of views as to which of the two—Andrea or Nicola—had a better claim to play the role of the Comte de la Fère. Andrea pointed out that Nicola—who made excessive use of cologne and aftershave—might realistically hope to be Aramis, but if the truth be told he really was perfect for the role of Milady. This piece of advice raised the volume
of the debate, and Nicola allowed that expert testimony as to his personal virility could be provided, in considerable detail, by either Andrea’s mother or his sister.

If I half-closed my eyes I could still hear our voices, rendered up intact and authentic from the archives of my memory. Emilio’s deep tenor, Nicola’s nasal voice, the quick cadence of Andrea’s, occasionally rising to a shrill pitch, and my own voice—which I have never been able to describe. All those voices were there, hovering in the air of that big empty room, reminding me that ghosts exist and wander among us.

That memory could have triggered a bout of sadness. Instead, it gave me a faint, inexplicable sense of excitement, as if the past were suddenly no longer past and instead formed a sort of extended present, simultaneous and welcoming. Sitting in that café, waiting to meet with a coke dealer, I felt for an instant as if my mind had embraced the synchronic mystery of time and memory.

Then the coke dealer arrived, and that odd enchantment vanished as suddenly as it had arrived.

We ordered two cappuccinos and sat silently until the waiter brought them to our table and vanished down the stairs, leaving us alone. Only then did we begin talking.

“So, Damiano?”

“I asked around, and I may have found something.”

“Tell me about it.”

“There’s a young gay guy I know who sells coke in clubs and discos. Actually, he’s sort of a hybrid dealer/user: Basically, he sells coke to pay for his personal use. He told
me that he does know a certain Michele who often has plenty of cocaine. He said that sometimes he bought small amounts from him, and that other times he sold coke to Michele. This is fairly normal between small-time dealers: They go back and forth—when one guy has it he’ll sell to the other, and vice versa.”

“Why do you think this could be the Michele we’re looking for?”

“You told me your Michele is handsome, right?”

“That’s what they tell me.”

“My gay friend said this Michele was a prime hunk of meat. His exact words.”

“Let me guess: The problem is that he doesn’t know his last name.”

“No, he doesn’t, but if we could just show him a picture …”

Right. If we could just show him a picture. I had to stop wasting time and find a way to get that picture. I’d have to call Fornelli. Or maybe, I thought, maybe Caterina could get me a photograph of Michele. That reminded me that I needed to call her to arrange our departure the following day.

“Counselor?”

“Yes?”

“Can I be sure that this guy isn’t going to get in trouble because of the things he’s telling me?”

“You mean this gay friend of yours?”

“Well, he’s not actually a friend, but yes, I mean him.”

“Don’t worry, Damiano. The only thing I care about is finding out what happened to Manuela. You and I never even had this conversation, as far as I’m concerned.”

Quintavalle seemed relieved.

“Sorry to ask, but—”

I raised my hand to stop him. Of course I understood his concern perfectly. For someone in his line of work, just asking questions could be dangerous. I thanked him, told him that I’d try to find a picture of Michele and I’d call him when I did. Then we both left the bar and went back to our respective—more and less legitimate—jobs.

I called Caterina on my way back to my office. I told her that I’d reserved an 11:00
A.M
. flight to Rome the next morning and that I’d come by and pick her up on my way to the airport at 9:30. I asked her if her address was still the same as the one listed in the transcripts of the interviews with the Carabinieri; she said, yes, that was the address, but to make things easier we could just meet in front of the Teatro Petruzzelli. I felt an unmistakable wave of relief at the idea that I wouldn’t have to go to her house and risk that her mother or father—who were probably more or less the same age I was—might see me, realize that their daughter was consorting with a middle-aged cradle robber, and decide to take drastic steps, possibly involving pipe wrenches or baseball bats or other instruments of dissuasion.

I remembered the picture of Michele just as I was about to hang up.

“Oh, Caterina?”

“Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a picture of Michele Cantalupi, would you?”

She didn’t answer right away, and if silence can have an intonation, her silence was followed by a big question mark.

“What do you need it for?” she said at last.

“I need to show it to someone. Anyway, we’d better not talk about it on the phone. I’ll explain tomorrow. You think you can find one?”

“I’ll take a look, but I don’t think I have one.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow, then.”

“See you tomorrow.”

25.

When I got back to my office, tasks and meetings oozed around me like some kind of amoeba out of a sci-fi film. This slimy, gelatinous creature held me captive until late that evening, when it finally decided I wasn’t particularly digestible and expelled me, in the physical and moral state of a half-digested zombie. Moreover, since the trip to Rome the following day wasn’t part of my planned workflow, I had to arrange for substitutes to attend my hearings and I had to reschedule my appointments.

When I got home, I was exhausted. I took a few halfhearted jabs at Mister Bag, just to reassure him that we were still friends, but I couldn’t bring myself to do a proper workout. I wasted more water than I should have on a long hot shower, with the bathroom door wide open and Bruce Springsteen playing at full volume. At eleven o’clock I was back on the street, riding my bike. I was wearing my old black leather jacket, faded jeans, and a pair of track shoes. All in all, I looked exactly like what I was: a middle-aged man, well into his forties, dressing like a kid, as if that allowed him to thumb his nose at time.

I told myself that I knew perfectly well what I was doing, and that I didn’t care a bit. Even if I understood the mechanism behind it, it still put me in a good mood.

BOOK: Temporary Perfections
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