Authors: Christobel Kent
A MYSTERY IN FLORENCE
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
THE DROWNING RIVER
. Copyright © 2009 by Christobel Kent. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The drowning river : a mystery in Florence / Christobel Kent. — 1st U.S. ed.
1. Private investigators—Italy—Fiction. 2. Florence (Italy)— Fiction. I. Title.
First published as
A Time of Mourning
in Great Britain by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Ltd.
First U.S. Edition: July 2010
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I have tried in
The Drowning River
to be true to the geography of Florence. However, although when I first visited the Kaffeehaus in the Boboli gardens, it was open for customers and entirely possible to sit on its terrace overlooking the city, it has been in restoration for six years and is at present not operating as a café.
It Took Four Days for the knock at the door. Four long, quiet days in the fading light of an unseasonably mild November, and plenty of time for Sandro to decide whether he liked the two rooms Luisa had found for him to use as an office, if not to make up his mind about what he was doing there in the first place.
It had not occurred to Sandro that he’d be in at the deep end with the first job. He thought he might get eased in gently but, then again, the world doesn’t work like that. It was a lesson he should have learned long ago, that life doesn’t owe you a warning.
The rooms Luisa had found were on the second floor, square and light and plain in a peaceful street off the Piazza Tasso in San Frediano. The street was the Via del Leone, with a small glassed-in shrine to the Madonna on the corner and at least four candles burning, the sign of a God-fearing neighbourhood, or a superstitious one, depending on how you looked at it. Sandro Cellini stood somewhere between the two, born Catholic, naturally enough, but a rationalist by thirty years of police training. He was too ambivalent as a result to go to Mass more than a couple of times a year, Easter and baptisms, but he liked the shrine, anyhow. And where there was God, there were old ladies. When he had been in the police force – a phrase that still knocked him
back – Sandro had found pious elderly women always ready to provide detailed testimony as well as to light candles for divine intervention.
The buildings of the Via del Leone were humble, no more than three storeys, and as a consequence the street itself was sunnier, quieter than his home turf, the acoustics less grating on the ear when the first of the morning motorini whined down it on their way to the centre. Born and bred north of the river in Santa Croce among noisy, narrow streets the sun never found, as he stood at the window that looked into the street on his first day, Sandro didn’t know if he’d ever get used to it.
It was Florence, undeniably it was, but it wasn’t the city he’d woken up in every morning for fifty-eight years, where only a shard of blue sky was visible and the street outside vibrated with din from seven in the morning. A cacophonous opera made up of the crash of bins being emptied, the squeak of the buses’ air brakes, the rumble of taxis, the first tourist group of the morning stopping on the corner to be informed loudly in Spanish or German or Japanese of where Dante had been born and Galileo buried.
Looking down, Sandro saw that it might be quiet, but it wasn’t deserted after all. He watched as an old woman led her small, overcoated dog to the kerb so it could crap on someone’s front tyre; soon enough, he thought, he’d know whose car that was and whether he cared or not. She was carrying a bedraggled bunch of chrysanthemums, heading for the cemetery, no doubt. Coming the other way, he saw a pretty girl; a student maybe, with long hair, long legs in dark jeans, stupidly huge studded and tasselled handbag. She was running, in a hurry; almost opposite the house she sidestepped the old lady and her flowers and her dog, and, as if she knew he was up there, the girl tilted her head and was looking back at Sandro. Her eyes slid over him and, ashamed, he ducked away. He wasn’t in this to eyeball passers-by, was he?
Sandro retreated to his desk. It had been found for him, like the flat, like every other piece of furniture from the grey filing cabinet to the elderly but respectable computer, by Luisa. In the silence he reflected that the lack of tourist groups, at least, was a mercy. A fondness for the sound of a Vespa or buses’ brakes might be his own private perversion, but he’d never learned to love the guided
tours. Luisa had pointed out that he’d better start learning to love the tourists, because they might turn out to be his bread and butter, just like they were hers.
‘I’m going to start tomorrow,’ he’d announced when she got home from the shop the previous night. It hadn’t gone down well.
‘Ognissanti?’ Luisa said with flat dismay. ‘Really?’ She stood in the kitchen with her coat still on, smelling of woodsmoke from the street.
Ognissanti was All Saints’ Day, the first of November, followed by All Souls’ the day after. Two days when all the leaves fall at once, and flowers are laid on the graves of loved ones. Tradition was, Ognissanti should be a day for quiet reflection, and the consideration of mortality.
‘Why not?’ Sandro said, defensively. ‘They called this afternoon to say the phone line’s been installed. I’ve had enough of hanging around.’
But he knew why not. Religion, habit, duty to the dead, not to mention that it might be obscurely inauspicious to start halfway through a week. And although Luisa was no more religious than he was, the tug of familial duty was stronger; her mother more recently dead. She had to get up early to take flowers to her mother’s grave out in Scandicci, before heading in to the city.
‘You’ll be at work yourself, after all,’ Sandro said.
Like many other religious days, the feast’s status as a public holiday was being eroded, particularly in the big cities with their wealthy, godless visitors, and Luisa’s employer, Frollini, had given in years back. They did good business in November, with the stock room crammed to overflowing and the windows full of sheepskins and velvet and party dresses. Luisa didn’t like it, but it was the new Italy.
‘It seems like bad luck,’ she said uneasily.
‘I don’t want to put it off any longer,’ said Sandro with finality, and she could see that that, at least, was true.
Grumbling, she had got up even earlier than usual to cook for him.
‘Your first day, you’ll take something hot to eat,’ she said, when he wandered into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, to remonstrate with her. The pristine lilies she had bought the night before for her mother stood in the sink.
She’d given him
– salt cod stewed with tomatoes – and when Sandro prised open the foil dish six hours later at his new desk it was still just warm; but then again, it was barely midday. He had been on the job three hours, and had done nothing but ogle a girl through the window and open a file on the computer for his accounts, before closing it again. Expenses to date, five thousand euro, give or take. Income, zero.
Sandro devoured the rich salty stew in five mouthfuls, suddenly starving. He spilled a little of the sauce on his desktop and although he rubbed at it immediately, cursing, it left a tiny orange stain. A good start, he thought to himself. What will the clients think, supposing any ever materialize? He felt ready to hurl something at the wall; what a slob. That night he told Luisa he’d maybe experiment with the local bar for lunch; she eyed him warily.
‘Gone off my cooking?’ He shook his head. ‘As if,’ he said. ‘Just – well. I need to get to know the neighbourhood.’ She nodded, deciding not to be offended. He didn’t tell her the baccala incident had made him feel like a small boy on the first day at school, on a knife edge of misery.
‘How was the visit?’ he said. ‘The cemetery?’
She was pale; he remembered she had been up since six, and he cursed himself for letting her work so hard. He could have just said,
I’ll start tomorrow,
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘It was good.’ She smiled and he could see that for all her pallor and weariness, it had made her happy. For Luisa a visit to the cemetery always kindled something; she still spoke to her mother, standing at the grave, once she had spent twenty minutes arranging the lilies. It was another example of her mysterious superiority, that Luisa was not afraid of grief.
Sandro had been nineteen when his mother died – she had had cancer, though Sandro never knew where – and just coming to the end
of his military service. He came back for the funeral in his uniform, unable to cry. His father went to his own grave a year later; they had been hard-working country people with no time for the expression of emotion, and although he’d been no more than sixty the loss had simply been too much for him to bear. Sandro had found himself stunned into silence by their abrupt absence.
It was suddenly too late to ask them anything; within six months he had met Luisa, and asked her to marry him. At the time it had seemed like the only way to survive; within five years he realized that he couldn’t remember his father’s face without taking up the framed photograph he kept in a drawer, and staring hard at it. They were in his head somewhere, the pair of them hand in hand in old-fashioned clothes, but he did not want to think about them; he didn’t have Luisa’s trick of taking sadness by the hand and making it a friend.
‘I’m a very lucky man,’ he said to her back as she stirred something on the stove. ‘Very lucky.’
One of the things Sandro turned over in his mind as he sat there on day two – All Souls,’ a little cloudier than day one, the November light a little thinner and paler – was this alteration in his relationship with Luisa. Thirty years married – or was it thirty-one? – and suddenly Luisa was in charge. While he’d been in the force they’d run along separate tracks, two blindsided locomotives, each oblivious to the other’s direction. With pain he thought of the big police station out at Porta al Prato on the busy
Standing guard at the north-eastern approach to the city, the warm, busy corridors, the long, shuttered windows, the camaraderie. Misguided nostalgia, he reminded himself; where was the camaraderie now?