Либрусек (книги fb2)
Conor Fitzgerald The Namesake
‘ Before we begin,’ said the magistrate, ‘I want you all to know that there is no chance of a happy ending to this story.’
A policeman stepped forward. He was a young man with an accent full of the unclosed vowels of southern Italy. He said, ‘Sometimes these cases work out for the best.’
‘How old are you?’
‘I am almost twice your age, Agente. I have had experience of cases like this before. Just one is enough to change your outlook on life and stop you from hoping.’
The other four police officers filling the small room nodded, which had the effect of isolating their outspoken colleague. The magistrate regarded them with a hint of disdain, and pressed the tips of his fingers against the polished wood of his organized desk, then shook his head in sadness at the open laptop in front of him as he set forth the essentials of the troubling case before them.
‘At four o’clock yesterday, after spending two hours in the “Aqua Felix” swimming pool, Teresa Resca, fourteen years of age, was waiting for a bus that would take her back home to San Donato. A car drew up, and for some reason she climbed into it. The whole scene was captured by a CCTV camera located on the outside wall of an office block here.’
The magistrate spun his laptop around on his desk so they all could see, and hit the space bar to start the video.
‘There she is, holding her pink sports bag. The camera has a narrow field of vision. She seems to be talking to someone, who moves out of frame. Now you can see the car pull up and, before you ask, yes, the camera is too high up to capture the number plate. The car is probably a grey Yaris, which might or might not be relevant at a trial held some day in the far future, but is not enough for us now. An unidentified older-looking woman goes over to the car, and you can see her talking to the driver, but we get no picture of who he or she is. She might be the same person Teresa was talking to a moment before. My instinct says it is, but let’s wait for the technicians to analyse the images more carefully, see what they say. This woman starts getting in and, at the last moment, beckons to Teresa. The girl, who, her parents and friends tell me, is not rebellious or unhappy or stupid enough to do something like this, climbs willingly into the car. The car drives off. Imagine being her parents seeing this video. Imagine being her as she realizes her mistake, which happens within half a mile, because it is then that her phone goes dead and vanishes from the network. Imagine the worst, because that is what will happen.’
They watched the girl get into the car, and the car driving away. He hit replay, and they watched the scene again.
‘It makes you want to reach into the screen and pull her back,’ said the southern policeman who had spoken up before.
‘It’s like being an all-seeing but powerless god,’ said the magistrate. ‘We need to get through a lot of detestable business first. We need to check the father. We need to look deeper into the family and its friends. That is the most promising hypothesis of all. Why would Teresa climb into a car like that? Our first idea must be that she knew the driver. Father, all family friends, relatives, all the girl’s friends, and then the mother. We rip into the lives of those who are suffering most. Let’s do it immediately and quickly. We strike when the nerves are raw and the pain is greatest, and we try not to drag it out for longer than we must. Next, we look into the father’s activities. He appears to be a failed journalist, but perhaps he is wealthier than he seems, and a ransom demand is in the offing, though twenty-four hours have now passed. Perhaps he owes someone something. Find out everything about his colleagues, past jobs, employment records. Go through the girl’s diaries, if she had any. Her phone records have already been checked, and every contact she had needs to be questioned. Check out boyfriends, if she had any. Check out fights with teachers, with classmates and any disputes involving her or her family, no matter how trivial: a fight over an apartment-block boiler bill, an unpaid dentist bill, a broken fence. Then, when we have done all that, we pass on to the worst scenario, worse for us because it leads to a dead-end: a random attack. Remember, though, this is a story that will not end well.’
Magistrate Francesco Fossati of the Fifth Section of the Criminal Court of Milan dismissed the police officers, and replayed the video, willing the girl not to get into the car and watching helplessly as she ignored the thought waves he was sending back in time.
Standing on a white pebble path at a quarter to eight in the morning towards the end of what had been another uneventful working week in an almost empty office, Matteo Arconti, now deputy head of the actuarial division of the insurance company, pulled out a pair of folding glasses to consult his new book. He pushed the glasses down his nose and raised his eyes to focus again on the tree in front of him. He had a lot of things to take in. Pale grey bark with deep fissures, a wide crown with sinuous low branches, entire leaves in alternate pinnate pairs. He was not sure about how deep a deep fissure was supposed to be, nor what ‘pinnate’ meant, but surely there could be no mistaking the round green fruit which, the book told him, ripens slowly over long hot summers. This was almost definitely a walnut tree, a Juglans regia. He had been walking past it, under it, for fifteen years and had never thought to examine it, or any of the other trees in the Indro Montanelli Gardens. He lowered his eyes to read the botanical name again: Juglans regia.
He skimmed through the pages to see if he could spot an illustration of the taller and thinner tree on the other side of the path, but he was already running late. He gave himself a certainty score of 85 per cent with regard to this probable walnut. In need of more data, he reached up and plucked one of the bright lime-coloured fruits. He split the outer skin of the globular casing with his thumbnail, causing it to release a scent that cut through the air like the aromatic volatiles of a synthetic detergent. He tried to prise it open to get to the walnut inside.
Unexpectedly, fluid squirted out, hitting his white shirt cuff, which poked neatly out from beneath his business suit. Damn. Watery as it ran into the webbing between his thumb and index finger, the fluid quickly became sticky. He stopped off at a drinking fountain to wash his hands, and tossed away the unsplittable case. Through the railings, he could see his dark-blue BMW 5 Series. A dirty white van drove slowly past.
He rubbed his hands under the flowing water and then stared at them in puzzlement. The juices from the smooth green fruit had tanned his skin with shades of yellow and brown. His fingers seemed nicotine stained, and the purple and black streak across his thumbnail was so similar to a bruise that he fancied he felt it throb as he looked at it. The more he washed his hands, the darker the stain became.
His wife had set him a challenge as she handed him the book: identify every tree in the park by the end of September, before the leaves fall. He liked the idea, and had even figured out how to set up a spreadsheet on his laptop to keep track. He had decided to locate the trees he identified on Google Maps, and mark the date too. Walnut tree, August 26. It would be the first thing he did when he got to the office. In these dog days of late summer, he had plenty of dead time.
‘You need to change your priorities a little,’ Letizia had told him that morning as he stood frowning at the unexpected gift. ‘We’ve plenty of money. You said yourself there was no need to continue with the pretence of being a dynamic young manager. So take it easy. Spend time with your children, who love you. Sofia is fifteen already. She’s going through a bad patch now, coming to terms with not being as good-looking as she once thought she was.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, she’s hardly perfect. She seems to have inherited your legs, for a start, which, well, and her chin is pointy sharp and her nose — I think that must come from your side of the family, too.’
‘She’s absolutely beautiful. She always has been, always will be.’
Now he glanced at his vintage Breitling watch, a gift from Letizia six years ago to celebrate his fortieth birthday. The watch lost twelve to fifteen minutes a day, but he had never had the heart to tell her and continued to wear it, surreptitiously righting it every morning against the clock on his mobile phone. One minute to eight, lied the watch. That meant it was already at least one minute past. He slipped the book into his pocket, exited the gate on the side of Via Daniele Manin. He opened the back door of his BMW and tossed his briefcase in. Shutting it, he noticed a van, the same one he had glimpsed earlier, reversing down the road at speed. Idiot driver. He was going to have to get out of the way quickly if he didn’t want to get knocked down.
The van braked just in time, and its back doors burst open, to reveal a man with short straw-coloured hair, who half nodded at him, then leaped out and smiled as he landed nimbly on the road. Matteo stood absently fingering his car key, wondering if he was supposed to know the man standing next to him. Now the driver was coming around from the side, and for a split second, Matteo was worried that he had made a gesture of some sort to protest at the reckless driving. But of course, he hadn’t. He was proud of his ability to resist road rage. Even so, it almost seemed as if they were coming for…
Someone, it must have been the driver, pulled a thin plastic cord around his neck and jerked it tight, strangling his cry. The other man, or perhaps the driver again, grabbed his hands, and twisted them behind his back with speed and violence, then jerked upwards, causing extreme pain in his shoulders, and propelling him towards the van. He went straight into the side of one of the doors, hitting it with his mouth, and felt a crack, a shooting pain, and a sudden rush of salt and slime in his mouth. He felt the van tilt down slightly as someone jumped into it. The man who had nodded in that friendly way seconds before was now grabbing a fistful of Matteo’s thinning hair at the back of his neck and dragging him in. He could not breathe. The floor of the van felt strangely yielding, as if his face was metal and the floor was soft flesh. Now thousands of tiny ball bearings seemed to be rolling beneath his hands. He clutched at them desperately with his fists as if they were pearls of oxygen. A tingling sensation passed through his chest and he felt his body beginning to float upwards. Just before he lost consciousness, the cord was released from around his neck. He could hear gasping and coughing, and it took him a while before he realized he was making the sounds himself. He became aware of the man beside him and the movement of the vehicle. He was bringing his eyes into focus and getting ready to speak, when a bag was pulled over his head. Silently, the man bound his wrists with duct tape. He could hear the squeak of the sticky plastic being pulled from the roll as it was wrapped over and over his wrists and hands, stretchable at first, then tighter and tighter.
Milan-Sesto San Giovanni
The journey took somewhere between half an hour and an hour. Or maybe more. He had lost track of time but sensed the distance was not great. It was a short transfer from the vehicle to a damp room via a short few steps that he managed to negotiate without falling. He was thrown nose first against a crumbling wall. Still they left the bag over his head. He asked for it to be taken off, then scrunched up his face waiting for the blow that would inevitably follow. But no one answered and he realized he was alone. He could hear the muffled voices of the men speaking some Balkan or East European language. Probably Romanian, he thought. It sounded like it made sense. Romanian was full of Latin and Italian-sounding words; Albanian was unlike anything else.
Thought fragments and oddly irrelevant questions were forming a disorderly pile in the back of his mind, but they had to wait. He needed to concentrate on not dying from suffocation, on expelling the blood that kept welling up from inside his mouth and making him nauseous. To vomit would be to die. Finally, as an overwhelming question of dignity, he had to concentrate on his bowels. He began to get a rhythm going. Breathe slowly, gently, until someday someone would take this stifling hood off his head. Spit softly into the fabric to keep the blood and saliva from sliding down his throat and making him sick. Tighten the sphincter and clench the stomach muscles when the cold rush of liquid fear hit the base of his gut. The thing to remember was that they had the wrong person. As soon as they discovered their mistake, they would let him go. He had to be careful not to look at them and not to hear any names. He was able to move his fingers a little behind his back. He could use his right hand to feel the wedding ring on his left. Inside the ring were his wife’s name and the date of their marriage twenty-two years ago. He closed a finger and thumb over it and started easing it off.
He was not ready to die, even though that very morning he had given a thoughtful little speech on the question of ageing and death in front of his wife and his children, sleepy-eyed and outraged at being dragged out of their summer-morning beds. They already felt underprivileged to be in Milan at the end of August when everyone else was still on holiday. The trips to France in June, the holiday camps in July, and the two weeks on the Argentario counted for nothing, evidently.
‘Happy belated birthday,’ Letizia had said, giving him the book on trees. He had kissed her on the cheek. She moved her lips up to meet his, but he’d gone for the cheek, because, well, the children. But now he regretted it. He should have kissed her on the lips. He felt his wedding band slip over his knuckle. Then he had kissed Sofia on the head, run his fingers through his son’s hair, and said, ‘Get a haircut, Lorenzo. You look like a girl.’
Lorenzo was showing signs of wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. Statistics, mathematics, probability puzzles. He and Lorenzo always had football, number tricks and puzzles to keep them in contact with each other. But his daughter Sofia had floated to a planet so far away that communications between them had become infrequent and asynchronous.
His right hand was cramping, and his wrist hurt from the effort, but he had managed to free the wedding ring from the fat of his finger. He crooked his fingertip to stop the ring from falling off immediately.
Someone entered the room. Something scraped, thin metal against cement, the hollow tube of a chair leg, followed by a fizz of static as synthetic fibres brushed plastic as the person sat down inches from him. Fingers touched his throat without violence. Then another hand, moved in under his chin, as Letizia sometimes did when she was adjusting his tie before he left in the morning. Behind his back, he straightened his finger and allowed the ring to slip into his right hand, where he nestled it protectively in the hollow made by his thumb and the edge of his palm.
The hands left his neck and the hood was lifted. Fresh cool air rushed across his face, down his mouth, up his nostrils, through his hair. It was like riding the waves in a speedboat. He looked up into the face of the man who had freed him from the constriction and darkness, unable to keep the gratitude out of his eyes. His thoughts began to clear as the oxygen returned to his brain and his eyes focused. He was in an abandoned place that smelled of urine and wet cement. He started talking.
‘We don’t have much money. I have a ski chalet in Aprica, just one bedroom, not worth all that much. My Generali stock options are worth 172,000 euros. I have 90,000 in the bank plus two online accounts that transfer to that account only, so I would have to be the one to do that. They have about 20,000 each in them. I lost money on the stock market. My parents rent their house and live on a state pension. Even if Letizia — that’s my wife, as you probably know — even if she sells the house to get me back, which she could hardly do without the authorities finding out and freezing my assets, you’re not going to get much more than a million, and… seeing as there are several of you…’ He thought of the Romanian words he had heard them speak. ‘Do you understand what I am saying?’
‘Shut up,’ said the man. ‘I’m not interested. If I want you to talk, I’ll tell you to talk.’ The voice was plaintive and resentful, as if his captor was the one having the wrong inflicted upon him. The speaker was a terrone, one of those brutal southern peasants whose unwelcome presence in Milan was one of the reasons the Northern League had become so popular. He wasn’t so good with the accents of the Mezzogiorno. He knew his captor was not Neapolitan. Neapolitans always sounded enthusiastic and friendly and on the verge of telling a joke. This was a more lugubrious southern accent, not Apulia. Sicily or Calabria — Calabria, probably. Where his own grandfather had come from.
‘Working in insurance doesn’t mean I can get my hands on money. I don’t have access to funds… I’m only middle management. I’m not very good at my job. I can’t keep up with the latest computer algorithms. I have no knowledge or privileges.’
‘Is that what you do, insurance?’ said the man.
The man had opened his legs a little and bent his head down, like an adult watching a child at play on the floor. Forties, tracksuit, overweight. He smelled of cigarettes, cologne, and something rubbery.
‘You don’t know what I do?’ said Matteo, hope rushing into him like the air had a minute before.
‘The Romanians said you worked in an office. They didn’t go any deeper than that. No need.’
‘Ah, you must have the wrong person, then,’ he tried to sound professional and politely apologetic, like the indemnification guys did when rejecting a claim.
The man held out Matteo’s wallet, pulled out his frayed identity card. ‘You are the person I want. Matteo Arconti, a Calabrian name?’
‘My grandfather came from there,’ said Matteo.
Like a conjurer, his captor produced the book on trees from behind his back. ‘This was in your pocket. You like trees?’
‘No — yes. I don’t know.’
The man opened the book, looked through a few pages in the middle, and neatly pulled one out, then crumpled it up in his hand. He stepped over, and slipped the book back into Matteo’s jacket pocket. As he did so, Matteo caught sight of a black pistol tucked into the man’s elasticized waistband. The absence of a holster caused him despair. It meant his captor did not generally carry a weapon. So, if he had a weapon now, it had to be for a specific and immediate purpose. At the back of his mind, a version of himself was marvelling at the clarity of his thinking, promising to save the memory for later telling once this was over.
But how would it end? Matteo bent his head down, muffling his voice against his chest in the hope that a lack of clarity in the question would elicit a lack of clarity in the response. ‘Are you going to kill me?’
The man pulled up his tracksuit, scratched his stomach, and picked absently at the thick black hairs around his belly button, then pulled down his tracksuit again, slipping the gun into his hand as he did so.
Matteo tucked his thumb deeper into his palm and rebalanced the ring. If he launched it behind him and his captor never noticed, it might serve as a posthumous message for the people who came looking for him when it was too late, and it would tell his wife he was thinking of her. At least he hoped she’d take it that way. But throwing away the ring was also throwing away hope.
‘Why me? I have no connections to anything. I have never harmed anyone, or stolen anything.’
‘We have to bow before the hand of fate.’
Matteo flipped his thumb upwards and sent his wedding ring spinning away into the darkness behind him, for anyone who was looking for him. He began speaking to hide any clinking sound of the gold hitting the floor. ‘I have… I have done nothing all my life. And I’m not ready. I’m still learning things, you saw that. Trees.’
‘I don’t want to explain it. Basically, from your point of view, there’s no explanation,’ said the man, standing up and raising the pistol, which had a short fat barrel. He pointed it at him.
‘I have a family! Two children!’ Matteo’s fear was tinged with outrage. ‘And I am so obviously not the person you want. There must be another person with the same name! No one is making you do this, you understand that, right? Listen, like me, you probably have children, don’t you?’
The man shot him in the heart, then the head.
Minchia che rumore! The noise in the concrete chamber had assaulted his ears and made him angry. He called in the two Romanians. ‘Take this heap of shit down to Rome tomorrow. Do it at night. Dump it at Piazzale Clodio. There are some wide-open spaces there without buildings overlooking. Stay away from restricted traffic zones, cameras, and police, and drive so as not to be noticed. Right, who took his wallet and watch? Come on. Keep the watch, if you want to wear a dead man’s watch… but I need the wallet.’
He held out his hand, not bothering to see which of the Romanians returned it to him. ‘Keep whatever money you found, but leave everything else, especially his ID card. Leave the book in his pocket. It’s a nice touch.’
Chief Inspector Caterina Mattiola walked into Commissioner Alec Blume’s office and dropped an envelope on his desk.
‘The results of the blood test,’ she said.
‘Good,’ said Blume, looking up from the newspaper he was reading. ‘Leave them there.’ He folded over a page. As always, he was reading the local news. The watch she had given him sat beside him on the desk. He glanced up, and made a show of surprise at seeing her still there. ‘I don’t suppose you’d close the door when you come in here?’
Caterina went back and closed the door.
Blume waited till he heard the click, then said, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t make it over last night.’
Blume returned to his newspaper. ‘So, you’re investigating that robbery on Via Giulia,’ he said as if reading out a mildly interesting headline.
‘Attempted robbery,’ she corrected. ‘They ran off without getting anything.’
‘Sure. No shots were fired. You told me the attempted robbers were probably two middle-class kids out for kicks. So, whose blood are we talking about?’
Blume pushed the paper to one side with a sigh.
‘I picked up your test results on my way in this morning,’ she said.
‘The pointless test you forced me to do.’
‘For your own good, Alec. It’s not normal for a man to wake up in the morning and eat aspirin.’
‘It is if you have a headache.’
‘That’s the not normal part,’ said Caterina.
‘I see you’re having difficulty adjusting to my morning routines,’ said Blume.
‘No, I think it’s working out pretty well. I am adjusting.’
‘Still, I imagine it’s nice to have a break from me now and again. I certainly would like to take a break from myself now and then.’
‘We both need to compromise if we’re going to be living together,’ said Caterina.
‘What about my big American breakfasts at the weekend? They seem to disturb you, too. I need to know they can continue.’
‘That’s a cultural thing. I can accept that. I like the pancakes too. But I don’t know how you can bear to eat all that meat and eggs first thing. It’ll kill you.’
‘Not at all,’ said Blume. ‘Fat and protein are beneficial.’
‘No one will convince me that those fried sausages do you any good. They put all sorts of disgusting stuff in them.’
‘I know that,’ said Blume. ‘You know what’s a big ingredient in supermarket pork?’
‘No,’ said Caterina.
‘Aspirin.’ He picked up the envelope, gave it an appreciative flick with the back of his hand, and dropped it into the top drawer of his desk, which he kicked shut as he leaned back in his chair. ‘Still, thanks for this.’
‘You need to take the results to your doctor.’
‘Sure thing. Like I said, thanks.’ He returned to his newspaper.
‘I took the liberty of checking your schedule and making an appointment for you. We have no urgent cases…’
‘You did what? I’ll make my own appointments, thank you. Also, I have one with the magistrate this morning.’ He picked his watch up off the desk and reluctantly started attaching it to his wrist.
‘I saw that. But it’s not until eleven,’ she said. ‘Also, I thought he’d finished with you.’
‘More or less. He probably wants to explain where the case is going. A courtesy thing. There’s a certain irony in this, isn’t there?’
‘If there is, I don’t get it,’ said Caterina.
‘Not with the courtesy. Magistrate Arconti is a courteous man. I meant the case itself. It involved Nimesulide, remember? Which is just the analgesic I want for my headaches, so that makes it ironic. Or is it the opposite of ironic? Apt?’
‘If I knew what you were talking about I might be able to help you choose your words.’
‘The case involved Nimesulide. The drug they make Aulin pills from. Chief Inspector Panebianco tells me it’s the only thing that works for migraines like mine.’
‘So now it’s a migraine.’
‘It always was a migraine,’ said Blume. ‘I just don’t like to make a big deal of it, so I call it a simple headache.’
Caterina rolled her eyes. ‘Maybe you should have taken a few handfuls of the Nimesulide when you made the raid.’
‘The thought did occur to me,’ said Blume. ‘But stealing drugs, even if they’re not illegal in themselves, and interrupting the chain of evidence in an Ndrangheta investigation…’
‘I was kidding, you know.’
‘I know. Taking you literally is my way of kidding you back. I expect Arconti just wants to sign off on the investigation. There’s not much we can do from here anyhow since the person he’s investigating operates in Germany, Switzerland and Milan. And Calabria of course.’
‘So the case is being transferred to the DIA?’
‘Probably. The DIA isn’t what it used to be. Twenty years ago, with Law 41(a) and the Mafia on the run, those guys saw themselves like a cross between the Marines and the FBI, poised for victory and revenge. Now… Just another mistreated police force. So the investigation goes to them, or it gets kicked into the undergrowth and left to fester. I suppose the investigating magistrate’s been taken off it, too. He probably wants to explain all that to me today.’
‘Meanwhile, your original investigation into the “suicide” of the hospital consultant from Naples…’
‘Stops here. For now. Foul play was not established, but at least the case opened an interesting avenue.’
‘That avenue was wide open if anyone cared to look,’ said Caterina. ‘The consultant had never even practised. For ten years he had been issuing prescriptions for vast quantities of Nimesulide, using hospital procurement contracts to cover his tracks. It was clear he was supplying the drug to someone who was using it to cut cocaine on an industrial scale. All people had to do was open their eyes. His colleagues, the hospital accountants, the Finance Police… he was acting in broad daylight, driving a Lamborghini on a state salary.’
‘Disgusting,’ said Blume. ‘But, eventually overcome with remorse, the consultant beat himself around the face, head, groin and chest before hanging himself from his balcony in what was unquestionably suicide.’
‘Are you really happy to leave it at that?’
‘It’s not up to me. It’s Arconti’s call. But it’s hard to care about the consultant or the verdict on his death. The consultant was a door into a more interesting inquiry. Arconti had retroactive traces put on the calls made by the consultant, which worked just fine, because it led to the arrest of two gallant gentlemen from Calabria.’
‘Your appointment with the doctor is for 9:15.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘So you should get moving now. The clinic is on the way. If you want, you can get painkillers prescribed by him. OK?’
Blume shook his head. ‘You’re kidding, right? You expect me to stand up and go to the doctor, just like that?’
‘Yes. You wanted something for your headaches. Go to the doctor, talk to him. I went to the trouble of making the appointment, it’s the least you could do.’
‘If I don’t?’
‘If you don’t go, I’m going to leave this office, wait for you outside, and then make a scene here in the station, in front of everyone. Maybe in the corridor, you know, with voices raised and all the trappings.’
‘You don’t scare me. Anyhow everyone’s on holiday.’
‘I can embarrass you though. All it takes is for me to announce we are half-living together.’
‘Everyone knows that.’
‘But it’s not acknowledged,’ she said. ‘If I make it official, you’ll have to write up a report on conflicts of interest, and one of us will have to be moved to a different department. Or else we’ll just have to marry and present it as a done deal.’
‘So what time did you say the appointment was?’ said Blume.
Half an hour later, Blume sat in the waiting room in the company of a desiccated old woman who avoided his eyes and fluttered her hand nervously across her throat every time he looked in her direction. He raised his arm and looked at his watch, and was about to ask her what the hell was the point of doctors setting appointment times for patients if they didn’t respect…
The doctor appeared in person at the door of the waiting room and motioned him in. Too cheap to hire a receptionist. In the office, the doctor unfolded Blume’s test results, read them, and burst out laughing.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘What on earth do you eat?’
‘Food, normal stuff.’
‘I’ve never seen a cholesterol reading like that. Bad LDL cholesterol, I mean. I’m putting you on statins. Zocor, one a day for the rest of your life.’
‘I am pretty sure you have seen a cholesterol level like that in the past,’ said Blume.
‘No, no. I’d have remembered a reading like this.’
‘No, you wouldn’t,’ said Blume. ‘Because I was here five years ago and we had pretty much the same conversation.’
The doctor frowned, ‘I thought I knew your face.’ He tapped at the computer on his desk. ‘There you are. I prescribed statins for you then, too. Why did you tell me this was your first visit?’
‘I didn’t want to have an argument about statins again.’
‘Obviously you’re not taking them.’
‘No,’ said Blume. ‘My cholesterol is inherited. Northern ancestors. Sweden, Norway, Minnesota. Places like that.’
‘Why bother with the blood test then?’
‘My partner insisted. Besides, I might have something else.’
‘Well, you do. Poor liver function. What’s your beef with statins?’
‘I don’t believe in taking medicine preventatively. I think it’s a scam by the drug companies. Scare people to sell them stuff.’
‘I remember you now,’ said the doctor.
‘But I do believe in prescriptions for real pain. I’d like you to write me one for Aulin, please.’
‘So you have headaches?’
‘Migraines, for which I need Aulin or something even stronger.’
‘If I said yes, you’d need repeat prescriptions. You’d have to come back here.’
‘But I’m not going to prescribe it anyway.’
Blume pulled a notebook from his jacket and flicked it open. ‘What about Migraless?’
‘Same stuff, same answer,’ said the doctor.
‘Let me see… he also mentioned Minerol and Edemax.’
‘No and no. Still versions of Nimesulide.’
‘Who is this maniac advising you? Take the statins, come back to me in a month, and then we can talk.’
‘I’m not taking statins.’
‘And I’m not prescribing Nimesulide to patients I don’t know. Try over-the-counter paracetamol, less coffee and a more relaxed attitude.’
Blume slammed the door on his way out, startling the little woman in the waiting room. ‘That man,’ Blume told her, ‘is fucking useless.’
Blume drove fast and aggressively through the streets to his appointment in Piazzale Clodio with Magistrate Matteo Arconti. He did not have a headache yet, but he had the intimations of one. It promised to be brutal, and it would be the fault of Caterina and that idiot doctor.
When they first met, the magistrate, whose unsteady vibrato voice gave all his utterances a plaintive edge, had asked Blume about his personal life. Blume had simply and automatically lied as he did to everyone who asked questions in that area. No partner, woman, girlfriend or emotional attachment to anyone, he had said.
The magistrate seemed so pleased at this information that Blume suddenly had a lurching sensation that this was the prelude to some sort of gay demand. It would fit in with the wavering voice, the ready smile. Jesus, the thought. The guy was white haired and had to be about sixty-five. Not that that was the issue. Even if he had been thirty-five or twenty-five.
‘I was hoping you would say that,’ said the magistrate.
‘Yes. You see, if the criminals want to get at you, they have to get you, Commissioner. The same applies to me. They would need to kill me in person, since it’s going to be hard to find any family. My parents are dead; I have no idea who my cousins are. My wife divorced me and moved abroad ten years ago, and even under torture, I could not say where she is. We had no children. I can be sure that no one innocent is at risk because I refuse to let go of an investigation. We might die, but no one has to die on our behalf. That is important. It gives us freedom.’
Blume, relieved to discover his magistrate had suicidal rather than homosexual inclinations, agreed, even going so far as to add: ‘I don’t really understand how a policeman can have a wife and family and still be effective.’
Caterina was not a wife, or even a proper partner yet. Propped up at his front door, ready to be taken round to her place, was a suitcase of belongings, mostly mementos of his parents, including their wedding rings. He had carefully buried the objects under a layer of his own clothes so that she could not see quite how sentimental he was. The suitcase had been there for five or six weeks now. Once he carried it into Caterina’s apartment, the die would be cast. Apparently, her coming to his larger and nicer apartment was out of the question, because of her son, Elia, who was not to be traumatized by a change of house and school. Also, her parents lived up the road. His dead parents and lack of children gave him no counterarguments. Saying he did not like her apartment much, which was true, was not an option. She seemed to think they could rent his out, but Blume did not want strangers pawing their way around what had been his parents’ home.
‘I can see we will get on well,’ Arconti had said after that first meeting.
And so they had, but as soon as the case began to get interesting, it had started moving away from them. Now the anti-Mafia magistrates of the DDA and the agents of the DIA were poised to take over.
It had started well enough, a trace on the doctor’s phone leading to a warehouse next to an abandoned cake factory in north Rome. They set up a surveillance detail, and within a few days, two suspects had turned up in a green van. The registration traced back to a car dealer in Calabria with multiple links to the Ndrangheta. A flag went up at the DIA and DDA, and from there on it was hardly their case any more, but Arconti seemed unperturbed.
The actual raid had been carried out at dawn by an eight-man team from NOCS, the Special Forces unit of the police. They were like a rake of eager colts. Trained to stand still as they listened to their commander brief them, each one of them was visibly struggling to suppress his pent-up energy.
Blume, feeling old, had watched them through binoculars as they burst into the warehouse, pretending he didn’t care that the young men in their combat uniforms and boots could all run a hundred metres in fourteen seconds or less, and eight kilometres in twenty minutes. He sometimes went on long runs that felt like they might be eight kilometres; hell, they felt like fifty.
The warehouse haul was 80 kilos of black cocaine and 10 kilos of Nimesulide in five plastic bags. Blume watched as a uniformed policeman wearing surgical gloves lifted one of the fat pill-filled sacks. Blume imagined the sack bursting and the pills bouncing and rolling everywhere as they hit the floor. One quick scoop of his hand and he’d not have another debilitating headache for ten years.
The two suspects, two brothers called Cuzzocrea, were cocooned in sleeping bags when the NOCS team broke in. The elder of the two apparently didn’t even wake up, the other struggled for a moment with the zip, but lay still when a boot was placed on his throat. The police also recovered 300,000 euros in cash — a good haul.
It turned out the Cuzzocrea brothers were first cousins of Maria Itria Landolina, wife of a certain Agazio Curmaci whose name was in one of their phones, though no calls had been placed to or received from him. A trace on both phones revealed a stream of connections in Germany, but the wiretap remit issued by the Italian authorities did not extend across the border.
‘I have been after Curmaci on and off for years,’ explained Arconti. ‘It’s almost a hobby. He is based in Germany now, so there is not much chance of my getting him, but this connection via the cousins of his wife was too good to pass up.’
‘Is the name completely new to you?’
‘No. I looked up some records. The capo of the Dusseldorf-Duisburg locale is Domenico Megale, the crimine is his son, Tony Megale, and the mastro di giornata is Agazio Curmaci. The identity of the contabile is unknown, but may be a guy called Murdolo. Or that’s how things stood two years ago, which is the best information I could find. That’s pretty much it. Theoretically, those three are on the same level…’
‘But obviously,’ said Blume, ‘Tony Megale, who’s the boss’s son and is in charge of armed operations, is going to be way stronger than the other two.’
‘You’d think that, wouldn’t you?’ said Arconti. ‘And you may even be right. But I think the most powerful one is Curmaci. There is a persistent rumour that Tony is not really the old man’s son. Then there is the fact that Agazio Curmaci was promoted straight up to the same level as Tony within a year of arriving in Germany. Shortly after, there was some sort of falling out between them, followed by several years that Curmaci spent in London where it seems he took a degree in history. Old Man Megale remains as ignorant as the goats he used to herd, and Tony, natural son or not, has inherited the ignorance. If I had to guess, I’d say Curmaci was the one who came up with the idea of calling the old man the Prefect. Putting his fancy education to use flattering the boss.’
‘The Prefect?’ said Blume. ‘Isn’t that title a bit too judicial-sounding?’
‘I think it’s more ecclesiastic, like Michele Greco used to be called the “Pope”. When the Catholic Church is establishing itself among heathens, it sends out a mission. If the mission is successful, the mission becomes a prefecture. If the prefecture grows in size, it becomes a vicariate. If the vicariate is consolidated, it becomes a diocese. Megale, one of the first missionaries into Germany, obviously sees the Mafia conquest of the Rhine-Westphalia region as being only at the second stage.’
‘Let’s get back to Tony,’ said Blume. ‘As the crimine, he has the firepower, access to killers, control over the arsenal.’
‘That can be taken away from him, and you should not underestimate the importance of the mastro di giornata, especially when you’re talking about a locale operating outside Italy. The mastro di giornata doesn’t just call meetings, deal with protocol, and act as an intermediary, he is also responsible for maintaining the traditions of the Society, and that is extremely important for a locale based abroad. The Ndrangheta is not just a criminal organization, it’s a system of belief.’
‘OK, so Curmaci’s important.’
‘Agazio Curmaci is almost certainly a santista, or maybe even higher,’ said Arconti. ‘All the signs are there.’
‘I thought a santista was a rank above the boss of a locale,’ said Blume. ‘It seems weird he could be both above and below the boss at the same time.’
‘It’s not really a rank. It’s more a function. A santista is dedicated to interfacing with the authorities and the world of business. He will be a member of Rotary clubs, Masonic lodges, business associations, political parties, planning committees and so on. He’ll exchange political favours and will appear as legitimate as possible. But, and this is where the Ndrangheta excels, a santista is even allowed to help the police if he sees it as being in the long-term interest of the Society. He can sacrifice his companions. If he is a santista, then he’s sort of outside the Society and inside it too. He’s allowed to make decisions that go far beyond his official title. Not only could Curmaci overrule Tony, he could even overrule Old Megale if he felt it was in the best interests of the Society.’
‘But his comrades don’t know he’s a santista?’
‘And you do?’
Arconti looked flustered. ‘No, I don’t. But I have a feeling.’
‘A feeling that Curmaci can do what he pleases?’
‘Not what he pleases. There are rules, and they are intricate. The Ndrangheta has a system that allows for controlled betrayal of parts for the sake of the general preservation of the whole. Cosa Nostra never managed it. In some ways it’s hard not to admire these people.’
‘Are you saying that because you’re Calabrian, too, Magistrate?’
‘I am proud as well as ashamed of what my people can do,’ said Arconti. ‘Look at Megale, the “Prefect of Westphalia”, to give the murderous old goatherd his full honorific title. He controls a vast fortune that he made by buying up thousands of offices and homes in East Germany after the collapse of Communism, most of which he did from behind bars. Or take his son, Tony; or better, Agazio Curmaci. They too have untold wealth, but live like they’ve taken a vow of poverty. Their families live in tumbledown houses in Locri. It’s not just money that drives them, Blume. Remember that.’
The magistrate paused and raised his left arm in the air as if trying to gauge the weight of something. ‘Old Megale was released from prison in Germany last week. Don’t you think it’s odd that those two clowns with the pills, the Cuzzocrea brothers, should turn up, a few days before the release?’
‘No,’ said Blume. ‘I don’t see it as odd. I don’t see the connection.’
‘Maybe you’re right,’ said the magistrate. ‘I’m just thinking out loud. Old Megale is in his eighties, and maybe he’s wondering who should succeed him. Then again, maybe not. Is his adopted son the appointed heir and successor? Somewhere off to the side, above or below Tony and not so easy to place in the hierarchy, is Agazio Curmaci.’
‘They sound like the sort of people who want to kill each other,’ said Blume.
‘Tony Megale and Agazio Curmaci have known each other since for ever, long before Curmaci went to Germany. Perhaps they are close friends. We cannot tell from the outside. And if anyone has reason to be bitter about being overlooked by Old Megale, it is Pietro, who is not only the first-born son, but, probably, Old Megale’s only real child. It seems Megale decided a long time ago that Pietro was not up to the job.’
‘Where’s this Pietro?’
Arconti, as if he had been waiting for this question, pulled out a black-and-white photo that looked like it had been taken in the late nineteenth century. ‘That’s him.’
Blume looked at the photo, and handed it back. ‘Is he normal? He doesn’t seem to have full control over his facial muscles.’
‘He’s borderline retarded. He’s still in Calabria. He and his wife look after Tony Megale’s son, a kid named Enrico. They have no children of their own.’
‘If they look after Tony’s kid, then there can’t be too much envy between Tony and Pietro, no? Agazio Curmaci, on the other hand, sounds like a usurper.’
‘It’s hard to tell. Pietro and his wife live practically next door to Curmaci’s wife and children. Tony’s son and Curmaci’s son are the same age, go to the same school. Yet in Germany the fathers operate in two different spheres. Tony Megale’s line of business is criminal, Curmaci moves in very legitimate circles. He’s not going to be pleased at having his name linked, however indirectly, to those two we captured.’
‘We caught them fair and square, without any tip-offs,’ said Blume. ‘I don’t see how Tony Megale could have planned that to undermine Curmaci.’
‘I agree,’ said the magistrate. ‘Also, it’s the sort of ploy Curmaci might use against Tony, not vice versa. Curmaci is subtler. It’s just that I can’t be sure we really were the architects of that operation. If the doctor had not committed “suicide” and if the death had not been very suspicious, the operation would not have begun. We would not have found the connection leading to the Cuzzocrea brothers, who led us to Curmaci’s wife, who led us to Curmaci. All this time I have had a sensation of being led by the nose.’
‘By Curmaci towards Curmaci,’ said Blume. ‘It doesn’t really add up.’
Arconti pushed himself away from his chaotic desk. ‘You’re right. I’ve passed everything into the expert hands of the anti-Mafia magistrates and the DIA. They’re better equipped than us to deal with these things. Unless, of course, you think you would be suited to that line of work.’
‘My speciality is unorganized crime,’ said Blume. ‘It’s a bit late now to question my career choice.’
‘It’s never too late for that,’ said Arconti. ‘And you’re still young.’
‘Only compared to you,’ said Blume.
‘See, that’s simply not polite. True, but not polite. I have heard people complain about your bluntness, Commissioner. But if you’re interested, I know someone.’
‘Interested in what?’ asked Blume.
‘A change of scenery. A new departure in your career,’ said Arconti.
‘Have you been talking about me to someone?’
‘Yes, and that someone has been looking at you and your strange past. He tells me you had American parents. I was wondering about your name.’
‘Did he tell you anything else?’
‘Not really. Interested?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Blume. He had once entertained ideas of joining the DIA, but like a lot of other things in life, it had not worked out. Until a few years ago, Blume would have regarded a DIA takeover of a case as probably a good thing; now he was not so sure. Clean, focused and effective in the early 1990s, the DIA and its judicial arm, the DDA, were like erstwhile youthful idealists who had become more tired and compromised as they grew older together, both of them being absorbed into the corrupted political system they had once dared to challenge.
‘All right, then. I am pleased to hear you are happy in your current position.’
‘That is not what I said.’
‘As for me,’ Arconti continued, ignoring Blume, ‘I have stayed away from the anti-Mafia magistrates, but I don’t think they would have me anyway. One needs to come across as a bit more… a bit more…’ He gazed wistfully out the window in search of the word he was looking for.
‘Dynamic?’ offered Blume.
‘Most of all, you need to be a bit uncaring, which is why I thought of you.’
‘You’re just sore because I called you old. I am actually a very caring person,’ said Blume.
‘People say you are reticent and secretive. Not very clubbable.’
‘I simply believe that you should never tell a friend anything you would conceal from an enemy,’ said Blume.
‘That attitude is what makes you ideal for Mafia work. I’ve seen this happen time and again in investigations, and it has happened to me. You seek a confession from a crime boss, and next thing you know he’s implicated half your colleagues, three dear friends and all your superiors. It takes a special type of person to deal with that. Someone who can survive alone. Once you have a confession, if you get one, you can’t be sure who’s telling the truth any more. Maybe you’re being played by your informer or maybe you have been fooled for years by colleagues you thought you could trust. Capturing a boss is like holding a rabid wolf by the ears as it tries to bite your balls off. You want to release your grip, but really you’d better not.’
He squeezed his eyes shut.
‘Are you feeling all right?’ asked Blume after the magistrate had not spoken for a while.
‘Do you ever get the feeling you are moving in slow motion?’
Blume nodded. ‘In dreams all the time. Running away, legs getting heavier and heavier. Something dragging you back.’ He looked at the magistrate who was sitting very still. ‘But not when I’m awake.’
The magistrate lifted his left hand. ‘Do you ever get the feeling one arm is really light and the other really heavy?’
‘If I am wearing a watch, it makes my arm feel heavy and causes my wrist to itch,’ said Blume. ‘And now you’ve reminded me.’
‘No, not heavy,’ said Arconti absently. ‘More like it was full of water…’ His voice trailed off.
‘My speciality is blinding headaches, not heavy limbs,’ said Blume, pulling off his watch and pocketing it. He stared at Arconti, who now seemed to be stroking an imaginary beard, as if he were a doctor diagnosing his own arm trouble.
‘I am stroking an imaginary beard,’ replied Arconti.
‘I see that. You can stop now,’ said Blume.
‘Who is your father, Commissioner?’
‘My father’s dead.’ Arconti knew that, damn it.
‘No,’ said the magistrate, slowly, weighing up Blume’s reply. ‘ “My father’s dead” is one of the initiation responses used by a Russian vor. An Ndranghetista at Curmaci’s level would reply, “The sun is my father”, though there are variations.’
‘Is that what the beard-stroking was about? Were you testing to see if I was an Ndranghetista?’
‘Of course not, Commissioner. I wanted to see if you recognized the symbolism. The imaginary beard is Garibaldi’s. Garibaldi, Mazzini and La Marmora are the three secular saints of the Santa. Apart from all else, Commissioner, including my trust in you and your work as a policeman, racially and culturally speaking, you could never have been a santista in the Ndrangheta. It has to be in your blood.’
Blume shrugged. ‘I just had my blood tested. It’s Mafia-free.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want to talk to this friend of mine about a career change?’
‘The DIA would never have me,’ said Blume.
‘It would not necessarily be the DIA. There are other groups that combat the Mafia from farther behind the scenes.’
‘I would need to think about it.’
‘It’s a solitary life, but you would not mind, I think. Being alone frees the mind; it allows you to explore areas that others neglect, see things that others miss. Don’t you agree?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Blume. ‘In my solitude, I have also seen many things that are not true.’
There was a knock at the door.
‘ Avanti!? ’ called Blume automatically, before remembering where he was. ‘Sorry, Giudice, this is your office. I had no right…’
An elderly man in a blue uniform backed into the office wheeling a trolley filled to overflowing with boxes and binders.
‘It’s no problem,’ Arconti said to Blume and the man shuffled into the narrow space between them. ‘We Calabrians tend to avoid the word Avanti. It’s what drovers and goatherds shout at the beasts of the fields.’ He watched the uniformed porter wipe the sweat off his brow, and carefully retreat from the trolley, lifting a clipboard off the top box. ‘When addressing humans, we prefer to be more respectful. We prefer to say, simply enough, “come in.” ’
The porter continued his balancing act with the files, and when it became clear that nothing was going to fall off unless there was a breath of wind, he looked at the form in his hand and addressed the magistrate.
‘These files are for Magistrate Matteo Arconti. I hope that is you, Dottore?’
‘Yes,’ said the magistrate. ‘That’s my name.’
Thursday, 27 August
Chief Inspector Panebianco delicately pinched the dead man’s worn identity card between blue latex-covered fingers. ‘As you can see, this guy was called Matteo Arconti. He was reported missing in Milan yesterday.’
Blume nodded. He was marshalling his thoughts and suppressing his shock. He would speak in a moment.
Panebianco allowed a few beats of silence to pass, then said: ‘The victim has the same name as the magistrate you’ve been working with, Commissioner.’
‘You think you needed to tell me that?’ snapped back Blume.
Panebianco continued, unfazed. ‘Same name as the magistrate but not him, right? Just to be sure.’
‘What sort of dumb question…’ He stopped himself. Panebianco was regarding him with the same detached look in his grey-blue eyes that Blume had seen him use for particularly stupid witnesses and suspects. ‘Sorry, Rosario. You were right to ask. No, this is just his namesake.’
‘I agree it was an odd question,’ said Panebianco. ‘I’ve worked with Arconti, and this is not him. But you know the way the dead are always a bit tricky to identify? Best to hear you confirm it, Commissioner. I wonder if he’s related to the magistrate?’
‘I doubt it,’ said Blume.
Panebianco raised his eyebrows. ‘Well, there has to be a direct connection. The body was dumped here outside the court buildings: it’s hardly going to be a coincidence, is it?’
Panebianco seemed to be pushing him for a response.
Blume cleared his throat, and spoke. ‘It’s symbolic… it’s.. They are showing us what they’re made of.’
‘Who? The Calabrian Mafia? That’s the case you were working on with the magistrate. Is this to do with the doctor and the Cuzzocrea brothers?’
‘It’s too early to say,’ said Blume. His rage had subsided almost as suddenly as it had welled up, and was now a simmering and manageable anger, the sort that gave him energy. And deep inside, in a hardly acknowledged part of his soul, there was a feeling of reluctant admiration for the sort of person who could kill for no other reason than that the name of the victim fitted. Murder for a play on words.
‘It’s effective,’ he told Panebianco. ‘This is quite a well-structured act…’ He looked at the splayed-out body, one arm pointing up, the other down as if to say, Here is where I came from, there is where they went.
As they moved around the body, a forensic technician cocooned in white watched fearfully without daring to intrude, like a possessive child who had made the mistake of lending his favourite toy to the two school bullies.
Blume tapped Panebianco on the elbow. ‘Rosario, don’t start from the Ndrangheta angle. If it’s them, the case will be taken over by the DIA; if it’s not, you’re going to have to build up a different working hypothesis, so you may as well start now. Treat it as an ordinary murder.’
‘You’re talking as if you’re bowing out.’
‘I am,’ said Blume. ‘You deal with whoever is the magistrate in charge. Try to keep Caterina out of it, would you?’
Panebianco stood up from where he was crouched examining the black-caked exit wound in the victim’s head, and waved at the forensic technician who rushed back towards the body with an air of gratitude and relief. His three colleagues followed.
Panebianco and Blume moved several yards away while the technicians continued their work with paper bags, tweezers and swabs.
‘I disagree, Commissioner. This would be a good case for Caterina. Like you said, it’s bound to be taken out of our hands once it’s clear it is organized crime, so it would be a perfect chance for her to get some practice, and then feel the pain of losing a case.’
‘I’d prefer she wasn’t involved. She has a son, you know.’
Panebianco looked at him. ‘She’s the only one on the force with children?’
‘That came out wrong.’
Panebianco did not look pleased. ‘You’ve got no children. Why don’t you handle it?’
‘Magistrate Matteo Arconti won’t be able to investigate this. It’s too clearly a conflict of interest, and I think the same might apply to me. I’m going to retreat into the shadows, so to speak.’
Blume beckoned to Caterina who was still talking to the two street cleaners who had found the body. She flicked her hand at him, with exactly the same gesture she used to shoo away her son when he tried to interrupt her talking on the phone. Blume enjoyed the domestic intimacy of the gesture, but disliked the casual disregard of his authority. Even so, he let her finish her interview.
He took a walk around the area. The place was well chosen, a wide waste ground used as an overflow car park with no buildings overlooking it, and flanked by a road with fast-moving traffic and no footpath. The body had probably been lying there for hours. From what he had seen, it was unlikely that the victim had been killed where he was found. From a distance, the corpse looked like a lump of tar, a heap of clothes or a bag of rubbish.
The road, Via Falcone e Borsellino, was named after two magistrates murdered by Cosa Nostra in 1992.
He checked his phone again. If Arconti knew of the death of his namesake, he would surely call.
Taking his time, he returned to the crime scene, now populated with more vehicles and a mortuary van. He stood at the edge and watched his colleagues go about their business. He observed Caterina whose movements were a little too quick. She changed direction often and twice had to retrace her steps. She spoke to colleagues, then five minutes later had to speak to them again. Lots of micromanagement errors so far, but she was maintaining authority and control, and being taken seriously — that was the main thing. He was pleased for her sake, then remembered he didn’t want her on the case.
When she finally seemed to have a moment, he caught her eye and nodded at her to come over.
‘The most obvious line of…’ she began.
Blume put up a restraining hand. ‘No.’
‘I think,’ said Blume, ‘the best way to approach this is to put a Chinese wall between us.’
She closed one eye and examined the side of his face as she often did when trying to assess whether he was being serious or not. ‘A Chinese wall, no less,’ she said eventually. ‘A great one?’
‘A Chinese wall is when you deliberately don’t share knowledge or information so as not to help someone else inadvertently.’
‘Sounds like an ordinary Blume wall to me,’ said Caterina.
‘I think you should maybe opt out of this one. You could tell the investigating magistrate your opinions are contaminated because of what I have already told you. You won’t get sufficient clarity. So Panebianco’s doing this until it’s passed on to the DIA.’
‘Or to Milan,’ said Caterina. ‘That’s where the victim is from. He works in insurance and has no record of any sort. He never arrived at work yesterday morning, and his wife reported him missing. So maybe we should look into the wife.’
‘The wife?’ said Blume, intrigued. ‘You mean an ordinary murder?’
‘I know this is almost certainly to do with the Ndrangheta, but, like you said, I won’t be influenced by you. See, your Chinese wall’s working already.’
‘You don’t want to have anything to do with this,’ said Blume. ‘People who find an innocent namesake, kill him for… fun. Because this is a form of fun for them. Like shooting up a shop or firebombing a factory is fun for the young recruits. It is evil joy.’
‘Evil or not, it does not follow that there is a particular risk for investigators. If they strike at us directly, it could spark off a war with the state, like Cosa Nostra was stupid enough to do in the 1990s. I’m in no more danger from this inquiry than any other. And you’re not my protector.’
‘I’m your commissioner.’
Caterina smiled and beckoned him closer, leaned into his ear, and whispered, ‘Commissioner Blume?’
‘What?’ Blume found he was whispering, too, and grinning like a schoolboy.
Blume stood back and scowled at her. ‘There was no need for that. OK, have it your way. I don’t think Curmaci or the Ndrangheta is involved in this.’
‘Oh for God’s sake, Alec. There is no need to exaggerate. How stupid do you think I am?’
‘No, seriously,’ said Blume. ‘The Ndrangheta is the “quiet” Mafia. This draws a lot of attention to them, and for what? It is not as if Arconti’s investigation was going to the heart of the organization. Maybe Arconti, the magistrate, had other enemies. Maybe this other Arconti from Milan did.’
‘Alec, I’m not listening to this.’
‘Well, you should.’
Caterina lowered her voice. ‘You spoke to me about a guy called Agazio Curmaci. Do you think…?’
‘I hear the wife is on her way down from Milan to identify the body,’ said Blume, glancing at his watch and realizing it was not there.
‘Yes, she should get to the morgue in about three hours, more or less at the same time as her husband’s body. But unless we bring up the Curmaci and Ndrangheta angle at once, the wife risks undergoing heavy-handed questioning from the investigating magistrate.’
‘How do you know he’ll do that?’
‘Experience of magistrates. Unless it’s a she, which would be better.’
Panebianco came over and pointed at a man strolling towards them, hands behind his back, his Venetian-blond hair visible from this distance.
‘Here comes the investigating magistrate. That’s Nardone.’ He exchanged a look with Blume.
Caterina followed his glance. ‘I don’t know him. What’s he like?’
Blume seesawed his hand back and forth to indicate that Nardone was less than perfect. ‘There are worse. He’s fifteen years younger than you.’
‘No way!’ said Caterina.
Caterina folded her arms across her breasts. ‘How old do you think I am?’
‘I don’t know, about fifty?’
‘You’re not funny. Now, if I am not to think about the Ndrangheta, what line of approach should I take to the fact this body was dumped in Rome in front of the courthouse?’
‘Maybe the victim came down here to Rome by himself.’
‘No,’ said Caterina. ‘The body was moved after death, you can see that from the lividity, the way the clothes are rumpled and soiled. He’s been dragged around, left lying on the ground for some time. Also, there should be more blood. If he was moved directly after death, there would be more bloodstains on his shirt and jacket. So he lay where he was shot long enough for the blood to coagulate and stop moving. Rigor mortis has completely gone, the skin has a greenish hue. The medical examiner, who seems to have a problem with women, won’t say how long…’
‘No, no. That’s just Dorfmann,’ said Blume. ‘He doesn’t hate you because you’re a woman, he hates you because you’re a breathing human. In his loathing of all living beings, he’s a paradigm of sexual equality. He’ll do a thorough report.’
‘If you say so. But the time of death is at least eighteen hours earlier. And the place of death was not here. He’d have been discovered before today, and anyway there’s no blood at the scene. So I’m going to assume he was killed closer to where he went missing, which probably means Milan. Which means even if this investigation is not appropriated by the DIA, it will probably be transferred there on the grounds of a “positive contrast” between the magistrates.’
‘Technically, it’s more likely to be a “negative contrast,” ’ said Blume. ‘Milan won’t have opened a murder inquiry, so it will be up to Nardone to declare the case as outside the scope of his competence. He will: most things in life are outside Nardone’s scope of competence.’
‘So you may as well let me stay on it for the day or two we have it.’
‘Fine, then. But if I were you, I’d give Panebianco a coordinating role, get him to liaise with the forensic team, and help build a timeline. He has an organized mind. He’s also very observant.’
‘More than me, you mean?’
‘Don’t be so touchy.’
‘Why aren’t you wearing your watch?’
‘I am wearing it in my pocket.’
‘In your pocket?’
‘It’s too hot to wear a watch. It was giving me a rash.’
‘So you don’t like it? I can change it for something else.’
‘Another watch, or an antique ring or a necklace, you mean? Don’t bother. I mean, it’s great and I like it very much, so there is no need to change it.’
Blume put it back on his wrist and stared at it like it was a canker. ‘There.’
‘Give me that watch. I’ll just get the money back.’
‘No. I really like this watch. And it’s been fifteen years since anyone bought me a birthday present, so I’m keeping it. What’s your next step here, Caterina? Concentrate on this. Never mind my beautiful watch.’
‘I’m trying to collect CCTV footage from the shops and a few banks. I’m hoping they’ll volunteer the videos without the magistrate having to intervene.’
‘Some will, some won’t,’ said Blume. ‘But that’ll take time and as far as I can see, all the cameras are too far away from here. What else will you be doing?’
‘Talking to the wife. Did you notice the victim had no wedding ring? I’ll ask her about that.’
‘When she gets here, yes, and beforehand?’
‘Talking to the street cleaners who found the body, which I have already done.’
‘Right. I suppose Panebianco can check with the victim’s employers, bank, work colleagues, friends, trying to reconstruct his movements. But if we put Panebianco on that, he’s not going to be able to help you here.’
Caterina stretched out her hand. ‘Come on, give me back my despised gift. The watch on your wrist.’
Blume considered a little more resistance, but he relished the idea of getting rid of it. Maybe next time she would ask him what he liked rather than trying to second-guess him. He made a show of reluctance as he pulled it off. She took it and dropped it into her bag, making a point of getting the fastener to click loudly as she closed it.
‘Where are you going now?’ she asked.
‘I need to talk to Matteo Arconti. The living one. The magistrate. And it’s not going to be an easy conversation.’
Matteo Arconti extricated himself awkwardly from his chair as Blume walked in. He stretched out a stiff arm as if he intended to ward off Blume rather than greet him.
‘They have killed me.’
‘Not you. Your namesake, Magistrate.’
The window beside Arconti was open, and a breeze was ruffling the stacks of papers on the desk. He wavered on his feet for a few seconds before collapsing back into his chair, all elbows, knees and anxiety.
Blume moved a heap of books and files to the floor to make room on an armchair.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Arconti. ‘I can’t say anything useful. I feel numb. Not just inside, but outside, too. It’s probably a protective mechanism. I’m not sure this is real. I have even pinched myself but I can’t feel it. That could mean I am in a dream, couldn’t it?’ There was real hope in his voice.
‘This is not a dream,’ said Blume.
‘That’s what the dream version of you would say. Prove it.’
‘Our conversation is too logical.’
‘I suppose,’ said Arconti, unconvinced.
‘Look at your left hand. Can you see it properly?’ said Blume.
The magistrate stared at the back of his hand. ‘I can see it fine. But I can’t feel it properly.’
‘I don’t know anything about not feeling it, but if you can see your hands properly, it’s not a dream.’
Arconti studied his hands, then Blume’s face with the same quizzical expression. ‘How do you know that thing about the hands?’
‘An old trick my father taught me when I was little, so I could tell the difference between nightmares and real life, as if there was one.’
Arconti turned his barn-owl gaze back on Blume. ‘Do you remember a while ago I was saying we were less vulnerable to attacks from the Ndrangheta?’
‘That’s why you should have told me about your girlfriend. I thought you were unattached.’
‘I’m still getting used to having someone. I sort of forgot.’
But Arconti was not listening. ‘… remember me saying that no one innocent will suffer as a result of my investigation? Do you? Do you remember that? And then they do this. They make an innocent man die as a result of me.’
Arconti pressed his chest and grimaced. ‘The murder of an innocent man who was unlucky enough to have my name is more than an ironic twist of fate.’ He jerked his elbow into a pile of files and sent them crashing to the floor, startling Blume who leaned forward to pick them up. ‘Leave the files, Commissioner.’
Blume straightened up in his seat, put his hands on the armrests, and waited for Arconti to have his say. The magistrate was now entering into a rhetorical mode as if arguing his case in court.
‘It’s one thing being isolated by colleagues, derided by corrupt politicians, ignored by the public and threatened by criminals,’ Arconti declaimed, his face, so white a minute ago, suddenly flushed with colour, ‘it’s quite another to know that your actions are the immediate cause of the death of an innocent person. Don’t take this wrong, Commissioner, but if they had killed you, I could have accepted that more easily.’
‘I might have found it more difficult,’ said Blume.
‘I can’t do this. It’s like investigating my own death. No one can work alone against that level of organized malice surrounded by colleagues and politicians who are complicit in it. I sometimes feel like quitting, leaving my job, leaving the country, too.’
‘Could you do that?’
‘Of course I could. Pursuant to Article 52 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, Abstention of a Public Minister…’
‘Not what the law says. I meant, could you just walk away from it all?’
‘Yes, I could,’ said Arconti. The idea had a calming effect on him. Speaking in a softer and more confidential tone, he added, ‘And so could you, Commissioner. Maybe someday you will. Do you have somewhere to go when that day comes?’
‘I couldn’t quit.’
‘You could. It’s one of the advantages of being on this side of the law. It’s the criminals who have pledged lifelong allegiance. If I sold my house in Rome, I could live out the rest of my days up north, walking in the mountains, looking after myself. I might even write a book, like that magistrate from Bari, Carofiglio. He’s done well for himself. Somehow managed to eke out his magistrate’s salary by writing books for a country full of people who don’t read. Are you happy, Commissioner?’
‘Life. You don’t want to answer, I can see that. You probably can’t. I was wrong just now about your partner. Make this woman your wife if she’ll have you. Marriage is important.’
‘Do you know how the Ndrangheta lets it be known you are about to be killed? They don’t invite you to a wedding. So you see, a wedding is life, absence from one is death.’
‘I see,’ said Blume.
‘You lied to me about being alone. I found out by chance about Chief Inspector Mattiola only this morning. Imagine, I thought that that was going to be the biggest shock of the day.’
‘I’m not married to her. I don’t even live with her.’
‘That hardly matters now. Besides, I was wrong. No matter what you do, no matter where you go, no matter how alone you are, they can hurt you and they will come looking. At least you’ll have someone to stand by you. You know at the start of the inquiry I called Curmaci’s wife — did I mention that? The judge in charge of preliminary inquiries wouldn’t grant me a wiretap, so I called her myself, recorded and transcribed the conversation. Do you want to know what I learned, but am only now realizing?’
‘What?’ asked Blume, more to humour Arconti than because he expected anything useful.
‘I learned that not only is Curmaci invulnerable on that front, she makes him stronger. She counterattacked in a way that makes me think we’re talking not just about a wife but a sorella d’omerta. When she replied to me, it was like she was reading from a script. Maybe she wrote it, maybe she learned it as part of the standard rebuff to magistrates who dare go after the wives.’
‘Isn’t that the sort of move that gets these guys really pissed off with you? Children and wives, the family is somehow sacred and off limits? Could that be why they killed your namesake?’
‘You are not making me feel any better, Blume.’
‘I am not blaming you, Giudice. Going after the criminal’s family is perfectly justifiable.’
‘They were Maria Itria’s cousins that we arrested. We had justification, even according to the warped code of the Ndrangheta. Of course, she knew at once that I was interested only in her husband, but the pretext was there. Do you think I was wrong to go after her like that?’
Arconti seemed to be asking for some sort of permission, which Blume was perfectly willing to give. ‘Wrong — morally speaking? No way. The criminals she helps support destroy thousands of children with drugs and guns, kill women and children with impunity. They rip apart families and communities and poison the land. They run hospitals for profit and money laundering, and leave the sick and infirm to die. Nothing is off limits in getting the bastards.’
‘She could also have been acting out of love for her husband. It’s hard to understand the people from my region.’
‘I don’t want to understand them,’ said Blume. ‘To understand is to forgive, and that’s not my line of business. I’ll understand only for investigative purposes.’
‘That makes it harder to detect sincere repentance.’
‘I don’t get to experience much of that.’
‘No, me neither,’ said Arconti. He surveyed the files he had tipped onto the floor. ‘Look, let me show you the transcript of the call. I gave her your contact details, too, by the way, on the off-chance she preferred policemen to magistrates.’
‘What? Why the hell did you do that?’
‘Good question. I had you figured for a more forgiving sort of person, Commissioner. The transcript’s somewhere on the floor now. But it says nothing about her tone. She sounded sad. Aggressive in bursts, but essentially sad. She reminded me of a hostage reading out propaganda. I think there is a slight chance of her talking, if only she had a sympathetic listener.’
‘Not me. You picked up all this from a phone call?’
‘I’m a Calabrian like her. I have an ear for these things. It can’t be nice being trapped for life in a small Calabrian village — well, it isn’t nice. I should know. She’s from Cosenza, you know. That’s on the edge of freedom. The writ of the Ndrangheta is not total there. Almost, but not total. In my town of Gerace and the horrible new town of Gerace-by-the-Sea at the bottom of the hill, Locri as it’s now called, they command everything. No one escapes.’
‘You call this escaping?’
With a grunt of effort followed by what sounded like a sigh of hopelessness, Arconti bent down to retrieve a file from the floor.
‘If I left the police,’ said Blume, addressing Arconti’s curved back, ‘I would not know what to do in life. It’s as simple as that. You get a chance to be good at one thing in life, and most people don’t even get that. If it turns out you don’t like what you’re good at, that’s too bad. The wrong life cannot be lived right.’
Arconti did not reply.
Pity, thought Blume, because he liked the phrase he had just made. The wrong life cannot be lived right. He surveyed the chaotic desk, the bowed-down figure of the white-haired magistrate. ‘Did you write the transcript up yoursel f?’ he asked. ‘If you can’t find it, just give me the gist.’
Arconti still did not reply. Instead, he slid silently out of his chair and fell face first into the scattered files and folders on the floor. Blume leapt up, rushed around, and flicked the magistrate over as if saving him from drowning in a pool of papers. The magistrate’s face was grey, his body stiff and unresponsive.
Dead, just like that. Another dead Matteo Arconti. Two in one morning. A sudden urge to laugh welled up in him, but when it broke his lips, it was as an angry shout.
The magistrate’s gaze was glassy and unseeing, but as Blume looked the right eye suddenly started blinking rapidly, and the right side of his mouth was twitching. In his left hand, he was clutching a piece of paper, which Blume yanked free, as if disarming a wounded criminal. Arconti, so silent in his collapse, was now breathing like a crashed-out drunk, full of snores, gasps, gurgles and murmurs from far down in the throat that sounded like the beginning of violent curses. Blume put his head down to Arconti’s chest and listened. There was a beat there. In fact, there seemed to be several hearts beating at once.
Blume rolled Arconti sideways, stood up, went to the door, opened it, stepped out and found himself looking at a corridor full of seedy lawyers dressed for court and clients dressed, apparently, for running. He ducked back in and, finally, marvelling at the slowness of his own wits, pulled out a phone and called an ambulance.
Then he sat down in the middle of the papers, and did his best to comfort Arconti, whose right eye had stopped moving but whose lip continued to twitch.
‘I don’t know if you can hear me, Magistrate — Matteo? I think you’ve had a stroke or a seizure. The ambulance is coming. You’ll be OK.’ He tried to think of some other comforting thing to say, pulling the piece of paper he had taken from Arconti’s hand out of his pocket in the hope it might inspire him. He saw it was the transcript Arconti had been reaching for. ‘See, you found the transcript,’ said Blume. ‘I’ll read it.’
Blume started rifling through the files on the floor, picking them up, stacking them on the desk.
In the corner of the room sat Arconti’s fat leather briefcase. Blume went over, glanced inside and saw papers from other cases. He dumped them on the desk. Working quickly, he started leafing through the files scattered on the desk and then those on the floor. He spent almost ten minutes going through them, trying to pick up something he could use, even if only as a benchmark to test the integrity of whatever magistrate would now take over. But it was too much. He could never pick out the essential documents in time. Already he heard the commotion and buzz working its way up the corridor. He grabbed handfuls of files at random, choosing the most densely typed ones he could find, and stuffed them into the briefcase. The piece of paper he had taken from the magistrate’s frozen hand he dropped into his inside pocket. Then he stood up, took a deep breath, and calmly opened the door, signalling to the ambulance crew and guards who were coming down the corridor. While the three of them piled into the small office, the fourth remained behind to repulse the horde of curious onlookers and concerned colleagues that had suddenly materialized.
Blume stepped over and looked down at the magistrate whose working eye seemed to have gained some focus. ‘Don’t worry, Dottore. Our case continues until you tell me otherwise.’
Arconti did not reply.
Back at the Collegio Romano station, the only other person from the squadra mobile to be found was the unloved Agente Rospo. When Blume passed him, he was speaking with quiet truculence, his lips almost touching the mouthpiece of the phone, and did not even look up.
Blume shut himself into his office, and slid closed a thin bolt that he had installed himself. He felt at peace here. The room was not pleasant or comfortable, but it had accrued institutional dignity over the years. It seemed as if some long-term policy was in place to renovate it at forty-year intervals. The process must have begun in the 1890s with the installation of the mahogany desk, an impossibly heavy object with dull brass handles on the drawers, topped by an expanse of bulging but still intact green leather. Forty years later, the Fascist authorities had added the heavy grey filing cabinets and a modernist interpretation of a chandelier of gunmetal and glass with sockets for three low-watt bulbs, whose light never reached the ground nor even managed to make the metal shine. The ripped club chair in the corner next to the door was from the same period. The rest of the room, including the ugly orange-and-brown painting in a steel frame on the wall, belonged to the 1970s. Forty years on, and they had supplied him with a multifunction fax-printer-scanner-photocopier and a laptop, and curly energy-saving bulbs for the chandelier.
The window looked into a shadowy void between buildings and never received direct sunlight. The soot on the window filtered out most of the light, and the dark walls of the office absorbed what was left. If he read, it was always in the yellow pool of the light of his desk lamp. While it might invite depression and introspection, the room did not admit panic. It was a good place to plan in.
His mother would not have approved of him being here. She had never dispensed nearly as much advice as his father, but he remembered her warning him about not seeking out too much solitude. It had been a day of a bad school report or something, and she had come into his room where he sat mute, alone, angry at finding himself in a strange country, fed up with having to study his school companions from a distance to see what made them tick rather than just joining in with them and making friends. First, she apologized and promised he would find his way in Rome, Italy and then the world soon enough, and then she comforted him with thoughts of going home to Seattle someday.
‘But loneliness is never a real friend, Alec. Beware of when it creeps up on you disguised as solitude, peace, independence or self-sufficiency. Do not invite it into your life because it will never leave. It will even pretend to be its exact opposite, a companion.’
Even then, she was probably too late with her advice. Besides, sometimes, such as now, solitude was a tactical necessity. He wanted no one, not even his own fully conscious self, to watch as he set about composing a forgery to entrap Agazio Curmaci.
Chief Inspector Panebianco had described the murder of Matteo Arconti as a ‘cowardly’ act. But he was wrong. Cowardice was failing to respond with conviction and power to a challenge, a description that did not fit Agazio Curmaci or whoever was behind this.
Mafia bosses were either traumatized killers or, worse, killers who were not in the slightest bit traumatized by the things they had been made to do when young. The upshot was they were always stronger than politicians and public servants, the police included. The fight against the Mafia, Blume liked to say, would never be won until the politicians did for themselves what they ordered others to do. According to Caterina, his was an argument for a police state. Fine, then. Why would a police state be worse than this Mafia one?
Agazio Curmaci was certainly senior enough to order a killing without compromising his own safety, but he could just as easily have carried it out in person. A man such as that would not take great pains to cover his tracks. With any luck, forensics would be able to get traces of his DNA from the victim, and then place him at the scene of the killing, if they ever worked out where that was.
The challenge, then, was to force the bastard out of his hiding place in Germany and draw him back into the open, back to Italy. As Blume sat in his quiet office reading the transcript of the phone call Magistrate Arconti had made to Curmaci’s wife, he saw with perfect clarity how this might be done.
According to the date stamp, the call had taken place several weeks ago. Blume read the one-sided conversation, a monologue effectively, several times and, as Arconti had already observed, the woman’s words offered absolutely nothing that could be used against her husband. On the contrary, they had been spoken with the opposite intention. It was a typical Mafia call containing the characteristic mixture of veiled threat and whining accusations of victimization. It was practically a template declaration, and there was no doubt but that she had read it out. Evidently, she had been prepared as soon as her cousins were arrested. Arconti’s side of the conversation was missing, but Blume doubted it would have made any difference to what this woman, this sorella d’omerta, said.
Dottore, I appeal to you as the mother of two children. I lay out my truth before your ideals of justice, and I beg you to resist the temptation of making such hurtful, dangerous and damaging charges against my husband, who is guilty of nothing other than being a noble father and a shining example to his children and the hardworking people of this modest town. Unable to make a living in a land too long forgotten and despised by the state, he was compelled to travel abroad, but would sooner cut his own throat than his ties with his beloved homeland. Even in my pain at his absence, I am comforted by the love and respect of the entire town for my husband, for they know him for what he is. Every man must respond to his own conscience and God, but the man you have described, the evildoer to whom you have outrageously attached my husband’s name, is unrecognizable. I pray that God will forgive you for this injury of our name when the time comes, and may the time come slowly.
I am speaking to you as a woman of peace.
It was effectively a declaration of affiliation to the Honoured Society of the Ndrangheta (I am comforted by the love and respect of the entire town for my husband, for they know him for what he is) and a threat on Arconti’s life with the references to God’s forgiveness, cut throat, and injuries. Finally, it was a way of letting Arconti know he was not going to get anything from a wiretap except elaborate declarations of innocence.
Blume phoned the Palaces of Justice, found the assistant who worked with Arconti, and asked if anything had been heard from the hospital. His concern was real, but he also knew it was too early for news and that the person he called would be more interested in hearing what Blume had to say. After confirming that there was no news, the assistant said, ‘You were in the office when it happened, I hear.’
‘Yes, yes, I was. He just keeled over. Poor man. But people can come through a stroke.’
‘His files are all over his floor. What happened, did he knock them off his desk as he fell?’
‘Yes,’ said Blume. ‘He was going to show me something when it happened.’
‘It is such a pity. Any idea what he wanted to show you?’
‘It was a confession of some sort. No, that’s not quite the word he used: an admission.’
‘I never found out,’ said Blume. ‘He collapsed before he could show me. I hope you’ve got those files in a safe place now.’
‘Safe?’ the sostituto sounded uncertain. ‘We have to sort through them. There’s a lot there, and some notes from another case have got mixed up. This was the investigation into the hospital consultant who committed suicide?’
‘Originally, yes,’ said Blume.
‘You’re saying there was a confession involved?’
‘I’m not saying that. Did I say confession? Arconti said something about an admission. A telephone call he transcribed. I don’t know any more than that. It’ll be in there somewhere among the mess of papers.’
The sostituto, whose voice was at once young and tired, said, ‘I hope so.’
‘By the way, in all the confusion, I left my notebook in there. Do you think I could pop round and collect it? It’s got some witness statements from a different case in it.’
‘Do you want me to see if I can find it?’
‘No, it’s all right. I’ll come round. It’s no trouble.’
He hung up before he could receive any more offers of help. The next call he made was to a reporter from Il Messaggero, a young woman — no more than a girl, really — who covered some of the cronaca nera, the local crime and bad-news section. He told her about Arconti’s collapse and the scattered files that were found in his office, omitting to mention he was there at the time. The reporter was not all that impressed until he mentioned that no one else knew about the mysterious mess in the office, which suggested that someone might have been looking for something. Her voice suddenly became chirpier and harder, her questions more direct, her gratitude for the call more effusive.
Blume sat down at his computer and began rewriting the words that he wanted Curmaci’s wife to have said. He was halfway through his first draft when his phone went. It was a reporter from the Rome section of La Repubblica. Blume hated the paper and disliked the reporter, so had some fun in being tight-lipped and uncommunicative, ending the call with an angry outburst about the police having no duty whatsoever to answer questions just because a reporter spoke about the ‘public interest’. He felt confident his comment would intensify suspicion that some sort of attempt was being made to suppress a leaked document. It would take them no more than a day to find the document and a night to construct their own journalistic fantasies around it. He was on his final rewrite of the bogus confession when a reporter from Il Corriere della Sera phoned him.
‘What’s this I hear, Alec?’
Blume gritted his teeth. He had met this man once in the flesh. It did not put them on first-name terms. ‘That depends on who you’ve been listening to.’
‘About a magistrate being hospitalized, his office ransacked.’
‘I have heard no such thing,’ said Blume.
‘A Mafia case, apparently. Ndrangheta to be precise.’
‘Nothing you can publish. No story there.’
‘No, nothing,’ said Blume. He hung up as satisfied as he knew the reporter was not. If past form was anything to go by, the reporter would get in contact with someone in the police who would get in contact with Agente Rospo who, not being very much in demand, had plenty of opportunity to act alone.
Blume took some scissors, cut the heading of the original transcript with Arconti’s handwriting on it, and glued it on top of his new version of the transcript. He deleted the file from the computer using the anti-virus program, which promised to overwrite it seven times, folded the original into his pocket, and made three copies on his dinky new multifunction scanner.
He took one of the copies and placed it in the middle of his desk and gazed critically at the new version of the transcript, and compared it with the old.
He had left the opening lines intact. Dottore, I appeal to you as the mother of two children. I lay out my truth before your ideals of justice, and I beg you to resist the temptation of making such hurtful, dangerous and damaging charges against my husband…
But where she had spoken of her husband being forced out of his native land, Blume made a few adjustments so that it now read:… guilty of nothing other than being a noble father and a shining example to his children who has been placed in an impossible position by the arrogance and power of the judiciary of two countries. That’s how Mafia informers usually justified themselves. He decided to keep the part about Curmaci preferring to cut his own throat, but now it read:
He would sooner cut his own throat than his ties with his beloved homeland, but nor would he ever betray the love of his wife and children whose very lives are now in danger as a result of the intolerable pressures you have brought to bear on him. My pain at his absence is intensified by the suspicion and evil mistrust of the entire town. Every man must respond to his own conscience for the sins and crimes he has committed, but the man you have described is no infame. He is an honourable man whose conscience is good and strong and whose love for his family too great. I pray that someday the people of this town will be free enough to forgive us for what they, in their ignorance, now regard as a betrayal. Allow his sincere repentance, I beg you, to save the life of two innocent children and a woman of peace… and so on.
An affiliated woman who had made a statement like that would not last through the week. He was pleased with his work. The more he read it, the better he liked it. He had turned a statement of defiance into a confession tinged with cowardice. The accusations against the town, the claim that they had no choice, the same dishonest tone, the same refusal to take responsibility for their misdeeds all struck a convincing note. It was still wheedling, still obscurantist, still bitter but, plausibly, the words of an infame, by far the worst insult in the rich Mafia vocabulary of hate and fear. The punishments for an infame were brutal. If Curmaci had any feelings for his wife or his reputation as a husband with honour, he’d have to intervene now.
Blume hid the confession in the middle of some of his papers. If the copy he was about to plant in Arconti’s office was not found, then there was a good chance this one would be.
Rospo accepted bribes from the newspapers, lawyers, unknown superiors and even rival magistrates. He was the source of half the leaks from the office and was dumb enough to think no one knew. One of the newspapers would have called him already and even for a modest sum he would hunt through Blume’s files like a truffle dog till he found whatever they had asked him to find, caring nothing for plausibility or truth.
Blume’s next stop was the courthouse, where he had no problem gaining readmittance to Arconti’s room, though accompanied by the sostituto, a young man with a wispy beard and round glasses, who looked like some early-twentieth-century radical. Gramsci, maybe.
The papers had been picked up off the floor, but were piled haphazardly on the desk. Blume said, ‘I can hardly search through the papers of an investigating magistrate.’ With a slight push, he sent a few files sliding over the desk. A few of them flopped onto the floor.
‘Oops.’ He slipped in the false confession as the sostituto was looking at the floor and swept the fanned-out papers back into an unsteady pile.
‘Look, it’s pointless. If you come across my notebook when sorting through the files, let me know, please,’ said Blume.
The sostituto nodded, uninterested and, it also seemed, unsuspicious.
Milan-Sesto San Giovanni
Friday, 28 August
When he had been a young man, he made the mistake of storing 40 million lire in an abandoned house on the outskirts of the town. Foolish youth that he was, he had secreted the cash in a cavity between one of the outside walls and the rotten floor, thinking the plastic wrapping he had put around the bundles of notes would protect them from decay.
He was sixteen and had just been inducted as a picciotto and was only then beginning his apprenticeship to become a sgarrista. For a year he had studied the initiation ceremony, overlearning it till it was like the alphabet or the times table.
— What seek you, young man?
— Blood and honour.
— Have you blood, young man?
— I have blood and I have blood to give.
— Who was the man that told you of the existence of this organization?
— My father, Domenico Megale.
— May the bread become lead in your mouth and the wine you drink turn to blood if ever you betray us…
Once sworn in, he was convinced they would ask him to kill so that his accession from picciotto to sgarrista might be accelerated, as befitted his pedigree. His family had form, history and honour. But they seemed to have no such exalted plans for him. In what was to be the first in a life of insults received, he was entrusted with the mean task of collecting ‘rent’ from shopkeepers. Worse still, they had assigned him to the oldest and weakest, to the most supine, intimidated and accommodating tradesmen, men completely without hope, honour, or courage. He could not understand this failure to put him to the test. Heaping on the indignities, they did not bother to ask him for the pizzo he was collecting from the businesses, yet prohibited him from spending or investing it. And so it was that he stored it in a damp alcove where it sat for three years. He could not bring himself to look at the growing pile of bundles, symbol of his shame, money taken from beings that were less than human. He pushed them deep into the cavity in the wall, and never noticed the mould that bloomed on the banknotes. When he at last pulled out the hidden packets, three-quarters of the banknotes inside had turned into a greasy black sludge. Those that remained were disintegrating.
He prepared himself for death, and reported his incompetence and loss to the contabile of his locale. But his story of the rotten money was greeted with laughter.
‘Burn what’s left, Tony. And find a better hiding place.’
‘I shall repay my debt.’
‘You made an honest mistake, did you not? 40 million lire. That is not even the salary of a hospital administrator. Let’s write it off as capital invested in experience.’
But he did not like the easy laughter that had greeted him, nor the way in which his expectation of death and willingness to accept it had been treated so lightly. For months, rumours about the circumstances of his birth, about his blood, had been circulating. Not only had his natural ascent been blocked, but there was, he could feel it, a collective sniggering behind his back when his name was mentioned.
But he always knew there was one way he could silence all the laughing and sweep away the scorn. When he decided the time had come, he acted without asking his father or his stupid but faithful elder brother Pietro for their opinion or blessing. For who could bless a son who kills his mother? A man who commits an unforgivable sin and shows no fear of certain eternal punishment is a man with no fear. Not only was he prepared for hell fire, he expected it immediately, since his foster father would surely put him to death for what he had done. Instead, they both left the village and transferred to Germany while the story of the boy who murdered his natural mother was quietly absorbed and mythologized by the town.
It had been harder than he imagined to plunge the knife into the old woman. She was sleeping when he came in, and her face was upturned, displaying so many of the fine lineaments of his own: the sharp chin, the tiny ears like two commas, the way the eyebrows swept upwards. When he saw all this, he hesitated, and as he hesitated, she awoke, and spoke his name in a way that filled him with rage, and allowed him to strike. Once she screamed it was easier, and, as when he was killing a suckling pig, the pity and revulsion merged into pleasure and fascination.
The sports bag he was now holding in his hand contained 5,000 euros. The bag and the money in it were to attract the attention of the Romanians, and excite their greedy minds.
He did not despise the two Romanians. He even felt some liking for them. They had carried out his instructions to the letter. It was hard to find reliable people nowadays. If they had not been Romanian, and if the situation had been a little different, he might have eventually put their names forward as potential contrasti onorati, faithful men worthy of being baptized into the organization.
He stood in the shadow of a tall tree that grew straight out of the cement paving. He was standing on what used to be the storage yard of the Falck steelworks, and yet here was a tree as tall as the factory walls fifty yards behind him. He remembered news reports about the works closing in the 1980s. It did not seem possible that the tree could have grown so tall since then.
His car was parked behind a pile of twisted rebar and rubble, out of sight. When the Romanians arrived, all they would see was him and the bag. Two of them in a vehicle, just one of him, on foot, in a wide-open space, ready to part with money and perhaps ready to commission a new job. They would wonder whether he was really alone. Well, he was.
The traffic on the highway made a steady hushing sound like the sea, and, in the tree, two birds of some sort seemed to be squabbling over a single purple berry, pecking at each other, fluttering, hopping on and off the same branch, ignoring the hundreds of other branches and thousands of other berries. The only other sound was the creaking of the steel girders and corrugated roof on the part of the factory that had yet to be torn down.
He heard the diesel engine before he saw the vehicle. Probably the same vehicle they had used to transport the body. Always a van with the fucking Romanians. You never saw a Russian in a van, never saw a Romanian in anything else. It stopped fifty yards away and flashed its headlights. He raised his hand in greeting, bent down, and picked up the bag, held it aloft, then put it down again. Did they think this was a kidnap exchange of some sort? He waved them over. The van drew closer, slowly, suspiciously. He signalled impatience, but saw no increase in speed. Dirty suspicious animals, the Romanians. Gypsy in all of them.
Finally, it stopped and out got Teo. Behind the wheel sat the other Romanian. Teo was upon him, his face all bristles and smiles, his thin cheekbones twitching, his eyes moving side to side.
Tony pointed to the bag on the ground. ‘There you are. You get to keep the bag, too. Pity. It’s Adidas, same as this tracksuit. I bought them as a matching set.’
‘Great,’ said Teo, making no move to retrieve it.
‘You want me to bend down and open it, show you the money?’
‘No, no,’ began Teo, but Tony bent down, unzipped the bag completely, and opened it so Teo could see inside. He could feel the Romanian’s eyes being drawn towards the grip of the pistol protruding from the waistband of his tracksuit bottoms.
‘You came armed,’ said Teo.
‘I live in a dangerous world.’ Tony picked up a broken piece of rubble from the ground and tossed it in his right hand, then from hand to hand as he straightened up. ‘This,’ he showed the lump of concrete to Teo, ‘is all that remains of Italian industry.’
Teo glanced quickly at the rock in Tony’s fist, but his gaze was drawn inexorably to the cash-filled bag. He lifted it up, and casually ran his hand inside it.
Tony slipped the piece of concrete into the kangaroo pocket on the front of his tracksuit top, adjusted his crotch, pulled out the lump of rubble again, and rubbed it with his thumb. ‘You’re not going to count the money?’
‘No. You need us again, you know where to come. Always glad to help.’
He turned around.
The Romanian spun around, his dark eyes widening in alarm.
‘Zip up the bag or you’ll lose the money. Two days’ work and nothing to show for it. What would your wife say to that? She’d be suspicious, wouldn’t she?’
Teo smiled, then nodded, and zipped up the bag. Tony watched him, giving him a friendly wave as he opened the door of the van and got in beside the driver. He allowed them to say a few words, waited till he saw the driver begin to turn the steering wheel, then called out again:
The driver stopped his action. Tony dropped his hand into the kangaroo pocket of his tracksuit, pulled out a black object the size of a computer mouse, and tossed it casually from hand to hand as he approached the van. He got to the window, which was a little higher than he had anticipated.
‘There is one thing you could do for me next week, but…’
Teo rolled down the window.
‘I didn’t hear that. You said something about next week?’
‘Yeah, I was saying there is something you could do. It’s a little harder than this job.’
‘What?’ asked Teo.
Tony stretched his arm out and dropped the black object at Teo’s feet.
‘What’s that?’ asked Teo.
‘A Mecar something or other. I forget the make.’ He fell to the ground and rolled to the rear wheel of the van, hoping the young Slovakian dealer who had explained this trick to him was right about the ‘relatively contained’ explosive force.
Teo and the driver managed to get a lot of words out between them before an enormous thud caused the entire vehicle to jump from the ground. The sound banged against the wall of the factory and bounced back. The Slovak had told him the fragmentation grenade would not make much noise, but he’d been wrong.
Megale stood up, a little unsteady. His ears felt as if they were full of water, and he realized he couldn’t hear the traffic on the highway any more. He surveyed the front of the vehicle. The blast had lifted the windscreen out, frame and all, peeled back part of the roof, and knocked out Teo’s door, which was hanging on the buckled remains of a hinge. Teo lay on his seat, his head back. Something blunt and harmless looking, like a piece of soft plastic, was sticking out of the front of his throat. The driver had found time to turn around, because his head was draped over the back of the seat. The blast had blown the shirt right off his back and embedded thousands of red and black fragments across his body, almost as if the cuts had already turned to scabs. The cab was filled with countless droplets of blood, something sticky and black, and a frothy white substance. Many of the banknotes looked unharmed, but he would not be touching them.
The thing was, the Romanians were alive. Both of them. The Slovak had told him they would never survive. He said it would blow their fucking heads off in an enclosed space like that, and yet here was Teo, not well, but definitely alive, his eyes not only open, but also slowly turning towards Tony as he stood there by the door. The driver, half kneeling in his seat, seemed to be whispering, like he was making a confession. Again, not dead. Megale wrinkled his nose against a stink of sewage and burnt oil that seemed to be coming from the driver.
Teo seemed to be smiling, but his eyes were becoming glassy. Tony pulled out his pistol, and put it into Teo’s eye, and pulled the trigger. He had to clamber halfway into the van to lift up Teo’s head to shoot him through the second eye. Then he went around to the other side, and pulled the driver off the seat. The man fell back, dead now, his intestines visible, slick and shining. So that’s where the stink was from. Tony shot out his eyes and, for added meaningless symbolism, shot him in the mouth, too. Now they would waste time wondering who this slob had been talking to.
He went back to his car and drove up to the van. All told, it had been a bit disappointing. He had seen car crashes that produced worse damage than that. The entire back section was intact. He lifted the jerrycan out of the boot of his car, and doused the two bodies, then sprinkled the petrol around the cab, and soaked the seats. He loved the aromatics of petrol. He’d always loved it. Shoe polish, too. He had once set fire to a bowling alley, pouring the petrol down the lanes and setting them alight, watching the river of fire.
He retreated, pulled out a cigarette, lit it and took a few drags before flicking it into the van. It bounced off the seat, dropped into a shining pool of petrol on the floor, and fizzled out. He moved his car out of the way, then returned and, walking backwards away from the van, poured the remaining petrol on the ground. Then he lit it with his lighter. The flame was slower and feebler than he thought it would be, and there was no explosion as the fire in the cab took hold. As the flames caught, the van rocked, as if being buffeted by wind.
Here I am, he thought to himself, twenty years on, burning money again.
The young policeman pointed to the screen with a triumphant air not yet diminished by the grinding repetition of tasks that his career had in store for him. ‘There!’ he said. ‘That vehicle there.’
Blume leaned forward, allowing the side of his face to brush against Caterina’s hair. Businesslike, she moved away from him and pointed to a blurred blob on the screen.
‘Not very clear, is it?’ said Blume.
‘No. It’s an old traffic camera,’ said Caterina. ‘Over here, we have RAI offices, which are definitely going to have a surveillance camera, but we’ve got nothing from them yet. And there is the court of the Giudice di Pace, where most of this footage comes from. Show him, Claudio.’
The young policeman smiled at Caterina. He was probably good-looking, if you were into white smiles and muscles obviously toned through excessive workouts in a gym. As he brought up images on the screen, he strained Blume’s forbearance further by explaining what Blume already knew.
‘This is a bar, which closes at 12:30, and this is a restaurant that closes half an hour later. The cooks and the owner usually leave at around 2:30 in the morning. They all cross the open piazza to where their cars are parked. Inspector Panebianco interviewed them all and none of them reports seeing anything, so we know it was after 2:30.. ’
‘Look, just show me what you got,’ said Blume.
Claudio pressed a button on his fancy control panel, and another grainy image in washed-out colour appeared on-screen. Blume recognized the crime scene. In the background, practically the only vehicle in sight, was a van, stopped by the kerb.
‘Three-twenty in the morning, we can see the van at the crime scene. This is taken from the offices of the Giudice di Pace. It is too far for us to make out any detail, even with enhancement techniques, also because it is dark. The camera takes frames every thirty seconds. The vehicle is stopped here, see? Afterwards we can just make out the body on the ground, but we miss the moment they put it there.’
‘But maybe we’ll see that from one of the other cameras we have not examined yet. It could be useful for prosecution purposes,’ said Caterina.
‘Uh-huh,’ said Blume, not all that impressed so far.
‘If we go back ten minutes,’ said Claudio, ‘we catch the same vehicle passing a camera on the banks of the Tiber and…’ he pressed a button, ‘there it is going past the crime scene, this time without stopping. If we go forward, there it is again, heading away from the scene. So the vehicle, which I think is a Ford Transit, drives by what will be the crime scene, like it was checking, goes down the banks of the Tiber, takes a right, goes down 200 yards where we capture it here, goes back to the crime scene, stops there, then back to the banks of the Tiber for the second time, where the cameras pick it up again.’
He sat back, ran his thumb down his sternum in satisfaction, and beamed at Caterina, who beamed back at him. Agente Carini looked quite dashing in the short-sleeved summer uniform he was wearing, and his hazel eyes were shining and full of enthusiasm for his job and the success they were having. He drew a breath to continue his explanation but was interrupted by Blume.
‘I’m taking it you got the number plate.’
Agente Carini’s face fell as he realized he was not going to get a chance to explain his brilliance.
‘Sorry if I spoil your fun and save my time,’ said Blume. ‘You’ve reported the registration number to Milan, I presume?’
The young policeman pouted, ‘Of course we did. Forty minutes ago. Not just Milan, a general request to all patrols.’ He folded his arms and tried to ignore Blume’s stare.
‘Was the van headed out of north Rome on the A1 back towards Milan?’
Agente Carini nodded reluctantly.
‘OK,’ said Blume. ‘So the vehicle will have arrived in Milan early this morning — but you still don’t have images for it leaving the highway?’
‘Not yet, we have to guess its probable arrival time. Obviously we’re going to see if it gets picked up on the security and speed cameras, in service stations…’
Blume held up a hand and cut him off in mid-flow. ‘From about half an hour ago there has been an APB out on it. Who’s the van registered to? Is it stolen?’
‘It’s not reported stolen. It’s in the name of some shopkeeper in Latina,’ said Agente Carini. ‘It looks like he figured he’d save on the vehicle transfer tax. So the van’s still in his name. He’s just now gone into the police to make a sworn statement to the effect that he sold it eight years ago. We’re waiting for news, but he’s probably got nothing to do with it.’
‘People should pay the damned tax to transfer ownership. They don’t realize they can be liable, especially if there is an uninsured accident,’ said Blume.
‘It is a bit steep, that tax,’ said Caterina. ‘My car’s in my aunt’s name.’
‘I don’t think the commissioner meant people like you, Caterina,’ said Agente Carini.
This was too much.
‘ Caterina? ’
‘I meant to say Inspector Mattiola. Sorry, sir.’
Blume looked at Caterina, and shook his head disbelievingly. ‘Inspector, why are you still here? Shouldn’t you get back downtown?’
‘If we get images of the van on the highway going back to Milan, that will be useful,’ she said.
‘Leave that job to the Boy Wonder here. Anyhow, I don’t understand you. Useful for what?’
‘Useful as evidence,’ said Caterina in her iciest tone.
Blume poked the young policeman. ‘Hey, Calogero…’
‘Claudio. My name’s Claudio.’
‘You look like a Calogero to me. Go get me coffee.’
The policeman stood up without looking at Blume, then made a point of going over to a female colleague at the next desk and whispering something and nodding at Blume and Caterina. Eventually he slouched off.
‘How dare you humiliate me…’ hissed Caterina, then stopped as she realized a dozen young cops at the data centre were straining to listen in.
‘No, you listen to me, Caterina. You got the number plate, now move on. Evidence for what — the pretrial conference? For the trial, which may never be held? How is it the recipe for hare stew goes? First, catch your hare. This stuff can wait. For God’s sake, Caterina, you’re the one who wanted this. You have twenty-four hours to find out what the victim and the suspects were doing in the twenty-four hours before the murder. Or have you forgotten?’
The young policeman came back, and sat down close to Caterina and glared at Blume. ‘The coffee machine’s broken,’ he said.
Blume had a shower, lay down, closed his eyes and breathed in the familiar air of the bedroom. It had been his for more than twenty years, but he still thought of it as his parents’ and of the bed he slept in as theirs.
He was just beginning to drift off for a deliciously early night, when his mobile phone rang. He placed it under the pillow. The muted trill and faint buzzing from beneath his head was quite soothing. If it was urgent, they would phone again.
They phoned again.
‘Commissioner Blume,’ said a voice he had not heard before: a voice that harboured no doubt it had the right number and was speaking to the right person. ‘My name is Captain Massimiliano Massimiliani. I would like to see you as soon as possible, if I may.’
‘Who did you say you were?’ asked Blume.
‘Massimiliano Massimiliani. Primo Capitano. Carabinieri. I am seconded to the DCSA. Where are you at this precise moment?’
‘I am in the San Giovanni district.’
‘Where in the San Giovanni district?’
‘Via Orvieto,’ said Blume.
‘Do you mean to tell me you are at home?’
Blume groaned in exasperation as the intercom by his front door rasped. Now what?
‘Just a minute, Captain.’ He took the phone from his ear, ignoring whatever the captain was saying, went into his living room, and picked up the intercom, held it to one ear, put the phone back to the other. ‘I’m still here, Captain. Someone’s at the door… Wait a second.. Yes?’
‘It’s me. At your door, downstairs. I’ll hang up,’ said Massimiliani.
The mobile phone relayed the words a full second later than the intercom, giving Blume the unpleasant feeling of the captain’s voice going in one ear, passing through his brain and out the other.
Blume put his phone away, grabbed a polo shirt and pulled it on. The intercom rasped again. He had forgotten to press the button to open downstairs. He did so now and went back into his room to fetch some trousers.
The captain rapped rhythmically at the door like an old friend in a good mood as Blume was doing up his flies. He had not found any socks. He answered the door to a well-turned-out man in his early thirties, dressed in expensive casual clothes. Early thirties, already a ‘primo capitano’, a Carabiniere grade that had no direct equivalent in the police, but could be said to be ever so slightly higher than the rank of commissioner.
‘How did you know I was at home?’ demanded Blume, standing aside to allow his visitor in.
The captain held one arm down by his side; in the other he had a thin leather portfolio with which he rhythmically swatted the side of his thigh. He entered the room with two long strides, and tossed the portfolio carelessly on the coffee table. The captain was not gym-toned like the idiot cop Caterina had seemed to like so much, but there was not an extra pinch of fat on him. Blume recognized the look. It was the easy confidence of someone with long military training, of one who has seen action. The easy gait, the ready smile came naturally to a man who saw no one in his sights who could possibly threaten him. The only sign of tension and, possibly, a lack of control were in the hands, which the captain could not keep still.
‘I needed to find you as quickly as possible,’ said the captain, as if this were a sufficient answer. ‘Also, I told you, I work for the DCSA. Electronic surveillance and tracking mobile phones is what we do.’
‘For drug smugglers and criminals. Not for police commissioners,’ said Blume.
‘Were you going somewhere?’ the captain pointed to an outsized, shiny hard-shell suitcase next to the door.
‘That’s been there for weeks,’ said Blume. ‘Why did you pretend not to know where I was?’
‘You’re the one who seemed reluctant to mention that you were at home. It seemed impolite to insist. May I sit here?’
‘It’s a bit…’
The captain sat down on Blume’s sofa, which received him in a soft sinking embrace so that his knees were soon on a level with his eyes. He struggled back up and eyed it then Blume with suspicion.
‘I was going to suggest the armchair,’ said Blume. ‘That’s basically just a pile of cushions. The springs went and then the webbing.’
The captain sat in the armchair and beat out a tattoo on the cracked leather armrests. For himself, Blume chose a cheap IKEA chair that Caterina had made him buy for her apartment and rejected as soon as he had finished assembling it.
‘You should dispose of that sofa,’ said the captain.
‘I know,’ said Blume. ‘It’s been here for years. I’ll get around to it someday.’
The captain interlaced and cracked his fingers. ‘I need your help for Monday morning, think you can do that?’
‘Sure thing,’ said Blume. ‘You need to move a piano, paint a room, have someone killed?’
‘Ah, sarcasm. Here’s my ID card if you need to check my credentials.’
He neatly flicked a plasticized card into Blume’s lap, then clicked his fingers impatiently as Blume examined it. The badge showing the interforce symbol of the DCSA: three swords, the flaming grenade representing the Carabinieri, a walled crown representing the police, the yellow flame of the Finance Police, and the motto: Trigemina vis cor unum.
‘Three forces and one heart,’ translated Blume. ‘Beautiful concept.’
‘Let’s get down to business, Commissioner. On September 2nd, the Ndrangheta are holding their annual general meeting in Polsi after the Feast of the Madonna. This year, same as last, we’re fitting the place out with hidden cameras and mikes, keeping an eye on who turns up. We’ll be logging number plates, taking photographs. They know we’ll be there, but, as always, they don’t care, and no matter how many devices we plant, they don’t have any problems making sure we pick up nothing that is vital. The bosses from all over the world turn up, or give powers of proxy to their seconds-in-command. This year, for the fun of it, we’re hosting a delegation from the German Federal Police, the BKA. The delegation arrived a few hours ago, and we meet tomorrow morning, then again on Monday and during the week. There are some tensions between the BKA and the Italian authorities, but more cooperation than you might think. The Germans have occasional moments of humility when it comes to organized crime, or, at least, they are willing to acknowledge our greater experience. Now that they have moved beyond the “mafia-doesn’t-exist-in-Germany” stage, they are interested in learning. A visit to Polsi is part of that. Your friend Agazio Curmaci could well turn up, too.’
‘You know what I mean. You come recommended, Blume. Magistrate Arconti speaks highly of you. In fact he says hello.’
‘He said hello? Not hyyuhhaggh?’
Massimiliani shrank back as if unnerved by Blume’s zombie imitation. ‘If you’re referring to the fact he was taken ill today, he’s already far better. He was sitting up in bed when I saw him. It’s true, he can’t speak properly, though I don’t think that’s an excuse for you to mock…’
‘You’ve seen him today?’
‘Yes. He recommended you a while back, of course. Today I went to visit him as a friend.’
‘Oh,’ said Blume, taken aback. ‘And what did he recommend me for?’
‘As someone who we might turn to for an extra hand. Specifically, someone who had a perfect command of English, a smattering of German, professional integrity, intelligence, experience, willingness to travel, no family commitments.’
‘A hand in what? I’m busy right now.’
‘It looks to me like you were taking an early night.’
‘I am on standby. Is Arconti really sitting up?’
‘He had a stroke, they administered the drugs. It remains to be seen what damage there is and how long it will take him to heal. But he’s already regained movement. Look, Blume, I’m not a doctor.’
‘Now that we’re on the subject, who are you exactly? Who do you work for? Apart from the DCSA?’
‘In order of importance and pride, I would say I am first and foremost a Carabiniere. I also work for AISI, and I have been seconded to the DCSA.’
‘AISI. You didn’t mention that before. SISDE, huh?’
‘AISI, not SISDE. SISDE’s the old name. It hasn’t been used for a while.’
‘That’s because you fuckers had such a reputation for subversion and corruption you had to change your name like a criminal on the run. More of a conspiracy of crypto-fascists, thieves, Freemasons and Vatican financiers than a secret service.’
‘I was a kid back then, but most of your criticism is justified. Even so, there was always a public-service ethos. Good people. Same as in any institution in this country. Layers of deadwood and corruption, but a core of good people in the middle, fighting against the odds. There is no conflict between homeland security and my duties as a Carabiniere. They are complementary. You know what the motto of the AISI is? It’s Scientia rerum Reipublicae salus, which means…’
‘The salvation of the Republic comes from knowing all about other people’s shit,’ said Blume.
‘That’s a very free translation.’
‘Tell me some of the Republic-saving intelligence you know.’
‘I know your colleagues are spending all night following up an investigation that has already ended. And you, sensing this to be the case, have wisely decided to take an early night.’
‘A few hours ago the police in Sesto San Giovanni got a call reporting an explosion and fire in one of those giant disused industrial areas. They found a van with two charred corpses. The bodies have not been identified, yet. But the van is the one your colleagues have just put out an APB on. The investigating magistrate in Milan has decided not to inform the investigating magistrate in Rome until tomorrow or even Monday.’
Blume retrieved his home phone from among the cushions of his collapsing sofa.
‘What are you doing?’
‘They’re my colleagues. I’m going to tell them. So they, too, can get an early night.’
‘I’d prefer you didn’t.’
‘They’ll know soon enough; why not immediately, give them a proper weekend?’
‘Because I would be breaking my word to my friend in Milan, if Rome were to learn about this before he was ready.’
‘So you shouldn’t have given him your word.’
‘I told you this because I thought I could trust your discretion.’
‘You’re one of these people who can’t keep a confidence. Immediately you hear one, you rush off to tell someone else, me in this case, and then you get all moral and uppity if it looks like I want to do the same thing. A secret service man who can’t keep a secret,’ said Blume.
‘I can keep secrets, Blume. For instance, I am not going to tell anyone that you falsified a confession by the wife of a powerful member of the Ndrangheta.’
Blume started to put the phone back on the sofa. But before it touched the cushion, it started ringing.
Blume answered the phone, taking his time. He knew without looking it was Caterina, the only person who ever called him on his landline.
‘I’m back in the office,’ said Caterina. ‘I took your advice and got to work on other things.’
‘Maybe you should call it a night,’ said Blume, staring at Massimiliani who raised his hands in a gesture of mild exasperation, but whose face did not betray much.
‘Are you calling it a night?’ she asked.
‘Yes, you should go home, Caterina.’
‘You know Elia’s on holiday at the sea with my parents?’
‘Even if you don’t need to get back to him, it’s good to get some sleep,’ said Blume. ‘You can get back to the investigation in the morning.’
‘I see,’ she said coldly. ‘I was phoning for another reason.’
‘That book Arconti’s wife gave him for his birthday. It had a page missing.’
Blume was surprised. He had been expecting some personal stuff from her. This was more welcome.
‘The wife bought the book at Feltrinelli at Piazza del Duomo a few days ago,’ continued Caterina. ‘I called her to check. It was brand-new, yet damaged when we found it. The pages skipped from 156 to 159. One sheet — pages 157 and 158 — had been torn out. You could see the ragged edges where it was ripped. I had one of the uniformed guys, Bonanni, pop round to the Feltrinelli store on Largo Argentina and get a copy while I was examining the CCTV, and it was here on my desk when I got back. The torn page corresponds to a description and drawings of oak trees: the Quercus petrea and the Quercus robur, the Sessile oak and the Pedunculate oak. I looked them up in combination with various search terms, including Ndrangheta, and this brought me to a series of webpages on the “Tree of Wisdom”, which is also called the “Mother Tree”, the tree of the Ndrangheta. Depending on the webpage, sometimes it seems as if the tree is mythological, sometimes as if it is an actual oak that has been growing for hundreds of years near the sanctuary of the Madonna di Polsi, above the “Infernal Valley”. The trunk is five metres in circumference.’
‘That’s very interesting.’
‘You don’t have to be sarcastic.’
‘I wasn’t being sarcastic. That’s interesting: the Tree of Wisdom.’
‘I think the missing page is a buried reference. Ripped out by the killer in a symbolic gesture. The Ndrangheta sees itself as a tree. The main trunk, the capo bastone, is the boss, the leaves are the latest recruits, the least important, the branches are their commanders, and so on. The roots feed on the blood of traitors and the soil of the land. I’m still reading up on it. If you want, we…’
The captain slapped out a fast rhythm on his knee, and stood up briskly and started touring the room.
‘Another time, Caterina. I need to go.’
‘Wait. He did have a wedding ring. His wife told me. For some reason he threw his ring away or they stole it from him.’
‘Probably the latter,’ said Blume.
‘No, I don’t think that fits the…’
‘Later. Tell me later.’ He hung up. Massimiliani was now strolling around the room, picking out books at random, looking at them, putting them back.
‘A lot of art books. History, too.’
‘They were art historians. I read your file. But three of the books I just looked at were published after their death, so you must have bought them.’
‘It’s a hobby.’
‘Stories are a waste of time unless they’re true,’ said Blume.
‘Or unless they serve a purpose. We all tell stories to ourselves that we know aren’t true. The Ndrangheta, for example, has a lot of stories that are useful. That Tree of Wisdom you were just talking about with…?’
‘They make stories up as it serves their purpose,’ said Blume, ignoring Massimiliani’s cue.
‘That’s just what you did with that confession, isn’t it?’
Blume tried to keep his gaze steady, but he felt disoriented. He had reckoned it might take two or three days for his falsified transcript to leak through the system. Instead, it had been a few hours. Even by the lousy standards of secrecy in the force and among the magistrates, that was far too fast.
‘Look, Blume, I admire your enterprise here. It tilted the scales in your favour. But let’s not waste time in denials. If there had been a confession from Curmaci’s wife, I’d have heard about it from Arconti. He mentioned that he had called her, fishing for information, but there was no talk of a confession. It had to be you. I think it was a good idea, and I like the way you both buried it in your office and in the Palaces of Justice. You made us look for it so that when we found it the thrill of discovery would make us reluctant to consider that we were led to it. I think you might be a natural.’
‘You keep saying “we”. Who else was with you?’
‘Your direct superior, the Vice-questore. Well, he accompanied one of my men. So he sort of knows, but he is not aware it was a forged document. Let’s hope he never finds out.’
‘Great. So my office was searched. Was Arconti relaying everything back to you? I trusted him.’
‘And you were right to, and you should continue. Casual chats. Of course, he’s not in a fit state to talk at length, but if we were to phone him now and ask whether he had received a confessional phone call from Curmaci’s wife, what would he say?’
Blume stayed silent.
‘We soon found out you were planting the story in the press, too, along with hints of a break-in and a cover-up. If we try to deny or kill the story, it will only gain more credibility. So it’s out there, now, with a life of its own doing whatever you wanted it to do. So, tell me, what did you want it to do?’
‘Disorient Curmaci, maybe force him back into Italy to defend his family before he’s ready. Get him in trouble with his associates. Just get back at him some way. Drag him into the open, discomfit the bastard.’
‘I like that. We can let it run its course,’ said Massimiliani. ‘Curmaci was probably planning to attend the Polsi summit anyhow. But for all your cleverness, Blume, you made a mistake that, to my mind at least, makes it incontrovertibly a forged confession.’
The nagging doubt Blume had had from the start in the back of his mind seemed to step forward and take an ironic bow. ‘I got the tone wrong,’ he said.
‘I was really hoping you’d recognize your own mistake — another good sign. You kept to the same tone of the original denial. But that was a prepared statement full of insinuation and warning. If she really had been confessing and seeking help, the tone would have been less coherent.’
‘Ah, well,’ said Blume. ‘She’s still in the shit, though, isn’t she, once this gets known?’
‘Probably,’ agreed Massimiliani. ‘Her name’s Maria Itria.’
‘She’s got two children.’
‘So had the unfortunate insurance salesman, Arconti.’
‘He was an actuary.’
‘You seem convinced it was Curmaci. Any particular reason?’
‘Well, Magistrate Arconti is the main reason. He told me a bit about Curmaci, and this seems like the sort of thing he might do. But I am not assuming it is Curmaci.’
‘So why did you go to all that trouble of falsifying his wife’s statement?’
‘If it wasn’t Curmaci, it was one of them. Getting Curmaci will do fine, since they’re all the same.’
‘Interesting attitude. You don’t care whether this really was Curmaci or not?’
‘Like I said, it may as well have been him,’ said Blume. ‘Curmaci or someone else in the organization. All the same. Only the name changes.’
‘Now I’m on your side in this, Commissioner, be assured of that, but can’t you see a slight similarity between your approach and Curmaci’s carelessness about killing an innocent man just because his name happened to match the magistrate’s?’
‘No, I see no similarity at all,’ said Blume. ‘But I did notice you attributed the killing to Curmaci.’
‘Suppose the murder was not even related to the Ndrangheta?’
‘It is,’ said Blume. ‘It’s too symbolic. It fits with how Curmaci operates. Killing a namesake, putting the body next to Via Falcone e Borsellino in remembrance of martyred magistrates, the torn page.’
‘What torn page?’
Blume hesitated, then told Massimiliani about Caterina’s discovery.
‘You think that was some sort of calling card left by Curmaci?’
‘I looked up the name Curmaci a while ago. It means “tree trunk”, so the symbolic gesture fits. Then there were the victim’s dirty stained fingers.’
‘What does that signify?’
‘I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said Blume. ‘But it’s bound to have some sort of symbolic meaning.’
‘Maybe you’re right. But it is not nearly enough for an international arrest warrant.’
‘Nothing ever is,’ said Blume. ‘Which is why forcing him down to Calabria gives us a chance to pick him up.’
‘Curmaci would be worth getting. The Ndrangheta reproduces like a cell. First, they make a copy of the rules for building another cell; then, they send someone like Curmaci with the rules abroad. Once the rules are laid down, other members of the original cell start moving abroad, too. You could compare Curmaci to a string of DNA.’
‘A string of RNA would make a more accurate metaphor,’ said Blume. ‘And Arconti compared him to a Catholic missionary. Anyhow, priest or protein, it still seems to me getting rid of him would be a good thing. When I say get rid of…’
‘No need to reassure me, Commissioner. I know you’re not in favour of assassinations, even of the worst. That emerges from your files. But wouldn’t you say Curmaci is too important to be carrying out assassinations in person?’
‘Like I said, do we care if it was him? He killed in the past, at least that’s what Arconti told me.’
‘Oh, he did that,’ said Massimiliani. ‘Definitely. He was an executioner for Old Megale in the 1990s. Then he stopped. It would be unusual for him to start again now.’
Blume shrugged. ‘So he ordered it.’
‘Possibly. Every Ndranghetista who goes abroad, Curmaci included, has to leave family members at home. That way they can operate more freely in the new territory. Their family members gain respect and wealth, but basically, they are hostages. The local Calabrian Ndrangheta can get to them at any time.’
‘That sounds like a weakness waiting to be exploited,’ said Blume.
‘Which is what you are trying to do with your forged confession.’ Massimiliani walked over and tapped Blume lightly on the shoulder. ‘I like that attitude, too. You have convinced me we can work together, now can I convince you?’
‘That depends. What would I be doing?’
‘I can’t say yet.’ Massimiliani pointed at the portfolio he had tossed on the table. ‘Read what’s in there. It will take you about an hour to read, two hours to learn.’
‘What is it?’
‘An old DIA report on the Camorra in Naples and environs. It gives descriptions of their activities, the names of the main families. It’s pretty basic stuff. Actually, I pulled most of it off the internet.’
‘I thought we were talking about the Ndrangheta. What’s the Neapolitan Camorra got to do with anything?’
‘Ah, what indeed? If only we knew.’
‘I’m sure you do know.’
‘As a matter of fact, I don’t. I am not going to talk about it until I know you’re on board. The situation is still developing. I can arrange for the Questore to give you time off, or, if we go down the official route, I can get the Prosecutor General to sign off on your temporary transfer of jurisdiction. If I were you, I’d take the time off. You get paid, and that can be topped up with some travel expenses.’
‘Where would I be travelling to, Naples, Calabria?’
‘I can’t say until we’re agreed. I can say, however, this could open a whole new career for you.’ Massimiliani strode over to the door and looked again at the suitcase. ‘Looks to me like you are already packed and ready to go.’
Massimiliani opened the door. ‘Monday morning, nine o’clock, Polo Tuscolano Operations Centre. Go in the north gate. Use my name. If you’re there at seven, you’re there. If not, no problem. You decide.’
Saturday, 29 August
It was after watching the girl waiting for the number 45 bus climb into the car for the fiftieth time that Magistrate Francesco Fossati suddenly realized why he had been doing this. With a knot in his stomach in case he was too late, he called up the police at the Monforte-Vittoria station immediately and ordered them to sequester all the video recordings from the office building for the previous weeks, only to be told, with a certain tone of disdain, that this had already been done. An hour later, he and an inspector were sitting in his office watching grainy images of the girl as she left the sports centre every other weekday at the same time.
Teresa Resca had been going to the swimming baths on Via Piranesi on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays ever since she finished school in June. She took the 45 bus from her house in San Donato at around two and took it back again at around four. It was almost a door-to-door service, but, to be safe, her father sometimes liked to meet her as she got off and walked back to the house through a narrow, isolated orchard path leading to the apartment block. She always phoned as the bus was drawing close to home. If he could not make it, then she took the long way round, increasing her walk by five minutes. When she failed to call or show up, they called the police immediately.
The father said he knew who it was, what they were doing, why they had done it, and as the investigation moved forwards, it looked like he was right. Giovanni Resca published essays, wrote a blog, gave talks and even put on earnest theatre performances, all for the sake of alerting the Milanese to the fact that the Ndrangheta was very much among them. He had received so many threats from the very start that over a period of five years of campaigning journalism, he had made the fatal mistake of becoming almost blase. He thought they might kill him, because this is what they had threatened, but they had never threatened his wife or their one child. Then the threats stopped, along with Giovanni Resca’s embryonic career in journalism. Branded an agitator, his shows of political satire drew shrinking audiences to ever-smaller venues and newspapers stopped publishing his articles. The upside was that the threats dried up along with his work.
The magistrate had been true to his word and conducted a ruthless and invasive but quick and efficient line of inquiry that day by day rapidly extinguished theories of kidnapping for ransom, incest, fraud, substance abuse and voluntary flight and elopement until they were left with two options: what the father had been saying all along, which many of the police thought improbable and a symptom of his deluded tendency to see the Ndrangheta everywhere, or a random snatch of a young girl by sex traffickers or a killer. None of the endings was going to be good, and yet the parents still seemed so hopeful it was almost irresponsible of them. Despair was better than hope, he knew; but his job was to bring home a body.
‘Watch the woman,’ the magistrate told the inspector. ‘You never see her properly because the camera’s too high and far away, but from the dyed-yellowish shade of the hair, the shape of the body and the way she moves, I could tell it was the same person. The technicians agree with me.’
The woman had turned up four times in a row and stood waiting at the bus stop with Teresa. They could be seen chatting a little. She was always there at the same time as Teresa. Possibly they chatted in the bus together. Together, they watched new video footage from the San Donato metro station, the terminus of the number 45 bus. Teresa got off several stops before the end of the line, but the woman, along with other passengers on their way to the metro station, stayed on to the end.
The police had put in the hours and expertise to filter down the video to one telling moment. Helped by the absence of commuters and traffic in August, they had captured a video feed of the woman getting off the bus at the metro station, then, instead of taking the metro or another bus, she got into a car, which resembled the one Teresa was to climb into a few days later. The car could be clearly seen turning and heading back in the direction the woman had just come from. Again, the number plate proved elusive.
‘She did not need to make that bus journey,’ said the magistrate. ‘She got on that bus specially to be with Teresa.’
The inspector nodded in agreement. ‘We’re checking other cameras for that car. Eventually we’ll find it.’
‘What were Resca’s articles about?’
‘Money laundering, construction companies and the financial crisis.’
‘And he loses his child for that?’
‘Giovanni Resca wanted his voice to be heard. He wanted people to read his articles and hear his truth. Now, with politics on vacation, every national newspaper and even the foreign press are following this story, and linking it to Resca’s articles, talking about his shows and his leftist politics. He got the fame he wanted and lost his child.’
‘We can’t find any connection to the woman. No one has any idea of who she might be,’ said the inspector.
‘That’s because she is no one. Let’s say you want to abduct an innocent but not stupid girl in broad daylight, how do you do it? First, you send a woman. This woman casually stands at the bus stop and strikes up conversation, almost certainly about how slow the bus is in coming. They get on, Teresa gets off, and the woman stays on board. A few stops later, the woman gets off and is picked up by her accomplices. Next time Teresa’s at the bus stop, there’s the woman again: more friendly conversation. Now Teresa knows the woman gets off at a later stop. One more meeting, more friendly conversation, by now they may be on first-name terms. Then, in for the kill. The woman is there chatting away, a car pulls up, and, why, a stroke of luck, it’s a friend who has spotted her there at the bus stop, offers her a lift home. The woman accepts and is halfway into the car when — where are her manners? — she extends the offer of a lift to Teresa. The driver, a friendly type, could even be another woman, has no problems with this: they’re going past Teresa’s house anyhow, as Teresa knows. In she gets. Fourteen years old, never harmed anyone, still full of trust and hope.’
Resca, G. (2009, July 30).
How the Ndrangheta saved the banks: an analysis by Giovanni Resca, Il Manifesto, pp. A1, A6
OSINT stands for Open Source Intelligence. It refers to the sort of information you can pick up in the public domain just from reading government papers, chamber of commerce records, company balance sheets, newspaper articles, planning permission applications, land rezoning agreements and local news. It is what we journalists used to do all the time, but now we prefer to be spoon-fed, and like fat, coddled toddlers, we accept digestible pap from the corporations and government. But who makes the pap? Someone has to produce it, and make it easily digestible and even tasty for a gullible public. The pap-makers may deserve censure for what they do, but they are today’s true journalists. Often venal, calculating and dishonest, always inventive, they are the great storytellers of our time. First, they plant their memes, their exposes, distractions, half-truths or downright lies, then they build a narrative around them. They are the world’s secret artists.
The trick in OSINT is self-reference. You create a news story that is completely or partially made up, then you circulate it quietly until it is picked up by someone else. You bide your time until it goes viral or simply becomes part of the background noise. The important thing is it must no longer have a single identifiable source. You let the Chinese-whisper effect distort some of the details of the story, then you pick it up again and bring it to prominence attributing it to others. That’s how most of the Iraq WMD stories were created. This is the storytelling skill. But, and this is the mistake that many of us on the Left often make, not all OSINT is false. On the contrary, most of it is true, for otherwise it would not work. The trick is to weave separate threads into a convincing fable. As in advertising and publishing, two other meretricious pursuits, the hardest part of OSINT is making sure that it’s your story and not someone else’s that gets out there.
Borrowing from the OSINT experts, then, I should like to propose my own version of recent economic developments. Using open sources, I have looked at the events since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and drawn some inevitable conclusions. Unlike many of my colleagues, particularly those who work for Berlusconi, I want to make full disclosure at the outset, and say that the reason I am telling this story, which is a true one, is that I want the Ndrangheta to become known. I want to publicize the name. I want the organization to become as notorious and ill-famed as Cosa Nostra. I want to put them in the limelight so that that part of the state they do not yet control might wake up and do battle.
As the readers of this newspaper know, capitalism needs a lot of propping up. It always has. Most of the direct support is through military spending, but capitalism can also rely on the public to provide collateral when things get tough. When billions are being made (but not distributed), the public is told capitalism works; when billions are being lost, the public is told it needs to pay up to rescue capitalism, because only capitalism works.
Sometimes plutocrats dispense with the effort of intellectual justification. They simply back capital accumulation with military force and the constant threat of violence, and kill those who resist. This is how it works in Russia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and most of Italy. We call it the Mafia, but we could just as easily call it deregulation. The only difference is the veneer of legitimacy.
But it is an important difference. For capitalism to appear legitimate, people must keep believing that it works. So when it stopped working, when people realized the banks didn’t trust one another enough to lend, capitalism faced an existential threat. The whole money supply — the whole concept of money itself was on the brink of becoming a story in which no one believed.
In the USA, the Treasury Department introduced quantitative easing. Likewise, in the UK — basically, they printed money, and put off the day of reckoning. In Italy, Berlusconi said the banks were fine, and threw parties in his Sardinian villa. But for a few nights, before the institutions could react, before the trillions were pledged by western governments, there was a risk that ATM machines would stop paying out. Banks needed cash, and they needed it quickly.
Now what sort of organization has a whole load of cash, serious cash, billions upon billions in banknotes — enough to make a difference for a few vital days? The answer comes spontaneously: organized criminals. Specifically, the Russians and the Ndrangheta. There were others, too, but these two had more cash than anyone else. The Ndrangheta needs to burn through its money. Cosa Nostra, an older organization, has interests, contacts, influence, clout and a certain establishment respectability by now, because it has so many non-cash assets. The Ndrangheta is flush with cash. In fact, it has too much, and needs to convert it into capital investments.
The symmetry was perfect. The Ndrangheta has too much liquidity, because it has accumulated cash too fast since the late 1980s. The banks had too little liquidity, and the governments had too little time.
Using open-source intelligence, which means intelligence available to anyone who cares to investigate for himself or herself, I have been able to establish, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the three major British banks and at least two large American banks received enormous deposits in cash during the crucial hours and days of the banking crisis. In exchange, and again, I have listed sources at the end of this article, it was agreed that neither the tax authorities nor anyone else would look too closely at where this money came from. It was the biggest money-laundering operation in history, and it was sanctioned by members of government and the upper echelons of law enforcement. It was a quantum leap for the Ndrangheta. It gave them proper financial power.
Capitalism was saved by blood and drug money to live another day, but we shall pay the consequences of handing enormous financial power to a Mafia organization so disciplined that even its name is unknown to many people in its own country of origin.
But check the facts, look at the evidence. The Ndrangheta is already in control, a virus that has taken over the body politic. As long as we are a useful and unwitting host, we will suffer only slight discomfort, but when this virus is ready to infect stronger hosts, it will kill us and move on.
Magistrate Francesco Fossati powered down his laptop, slid it into his desk drawer, and glanced at his watch. He needed to hurry now if he was to make it home in time for supper with his family.
‘Salvatore, how many times do I need to tell you this? Put the white cap on your head when you are in here.’
‘But I’m completely bald, Capo.’
‘That is why I am not making you wear a hairnet, too. Put on the cap and carry that bag of sugar over here while you’re at it. Mind your step, the tiles are treacherous with lemon juice.’
Salvatore, seventy-two years of age, arms as thin as tendrils, his face as dark as a rusty nail, lifted the thirty-pound bag of refined sugar as if it had been filled with feathers, and set it down on the zinc counter beside his boss, Basile. As well as lifting heavy weights for Basile, it was his job to keep the conversation serious and on-topic while Basile feigned disinterest. So, putting the sugar down, he returned to the conversation he had started ten minutes before. ‘It is unthinkable that a sorella d’omerta would spontaneously report to a magistrate like that. Especially her. She has been treated with nothing but the greatest respect, even though she comes from outside.’
‘The things we have lived to see, Salvatore. Personally, I’m not inclined to believe it for one moment.’ Basile swiped his hands together, in what looked like a gesture of finality, a closing of the argument for good, but also happened to be the most efficient way of getting the sugar and starch off his hands. Salvatore waited to see which it was.
Basile turned his back on Salvatore as he washed his hands under the tap. ‘Who is the source of this accusation against Maria Itria?’ he asked.
‘One of our people in the Palace of Justice in Rome. It’s part of the swirl of rumours around the dramatic warning issued to the magistrate.’
‘And we really have no idea who decided to drop a corpse outside the Palace of Justice in Rome?’
‘Not yet. Everyone seems to think Agazio ordered it; no one is sure.’
‘And this magistrate to whom the message was directed, he has a confession from Maria Itria?’
‘So it is rumoured.’
‘Reported. Yes, he does.’
Basile pulled sheets of green paper from the wall dispenser, dried his hands, crumpled up the paper and dropped it into the rubbish bin below. ‘None of this makes much sense. Least of all the intimidation of the magistrate. Excuse the noise, Salvatore. I want to beat these egg whites.’ He threw the switch on a white appliance and dialled up the speed. ‘Come closer to me so you don’t need to shout.’
Salvatore came closer, but remained silent, as he knew he was supposed to, watching the white foam rise in the copper bowl.
‘One of the churning blades in the Vita 30 60 ice-cream maker needs replacing. Apparently it needs to be shipped from China,’ said Basile. ‘So now the Chinese are in the ice-cream business. Nicaso repaired his own machines, re-pumped the refrigerants, and calibrated the compressor so you could hardly hear it even when it was cooling a full batch. He was the real artisan, not me.’
Salvatore knew Basile was thinking and wanted the conversation to drift towards neutral topics until he had made his decision. ‘Some people find it strange that you should want to ply a trade at all.’
‘What, am I supposed to spend my days playing briscola and inspecting my lands? Did you try the last orange sorbet I made?’
‘You know I cannot taste sweet things, Capo.’
‘I think it was even better than the turruni gelatu I made last winter. I added three grapefruits and reduced the sugar by about one-fifth. It was a bitter sorbet, which I thought you might like because there is no sweetness in you, my old friend. And you say you didn’t even try it?’
‘You never told me you had changed the recipe.’
‘Pity. It’s the first real experiment I have made since taking this place over. When Nicaso was in charge, he was always experimenting. Licorice in the coffee granita, kiwi and figs together. I never had the courage or the imagination. And I am too old.’
‘Nicaso was always breaking with tradition. That is one of the reasons he lost his gelateria.’
Basile’s laugh was joyless and asthmatic. ‘That is not the reason he lost his gelateria.’ He pointed to a heavy steel cabinet with fat glass jars filled with red and green liquid. ‘My strawberry and mint is commercial concentrate, sent down from Naples. Nicaso never did that.’
Basile pulled open the door of a refrigerator as large as the backdoor of a truck, and nodded to Salvatore to lift out a deep lozenge of stainless steel brimming with bright green ice cream, which started steaming as it entered the warmer air of the kitchen. Salvatore’s hand stuck briefly to the icy zinc, and he felt momentary pain.
‘Leave it to soften, Salvatore.’
Salvatore discreetly blew on his cold hands, and adjusted his white hat.
‘Would Agazio goad the authorities into inquiring into the activities of the Society in Rome?’ asked Basile. ‘Killing in Milan, which itself requires permission, and disposing of the body in Rome and mocking a magistrate as he did so? I am supposed to think that Agazio, who has always been subtle, disrespected the families in Rome and Milan?’
‘Perhaps he obtained permission from one or two of the families.’
‘And we heard nothing about it? That would be the worst option from our point of view. We can talk at the Feast of the Madonna next week, but I hope that that is as unlikely as it seems. For Curmaci, the assassination of the magistrate’s namesake is doubly destructive. It angers other ’ ndrine and will make the authorities determined to get him. It is better to assume this is the act of a hotheaded and rash person. To my mind, that would exclude Agazio.’
‘You realize I have great respect for Curmaci,’ said Salvatore.
‘Of course you do.’
‘I also have great respect for Maria Itria.’
‘Naturally. She is a good woman.’
‘The magistrates and police grow more despicable by the day. I believe it is quite possible they used Curmaci’s wife to generate suspicion and dissent. Indeed, we do not even know whether Maria Itria received a phone call from the magistrate or made one of her own volition.’
‘Or whether the call took place at all,’ added Basile.
‘Indeed. But would you not say that Curmaci, who is above all a man of principle, might have allowed himself to be swayed by his rage at this dishonouring of his wife and delivered an unambiguous message to the magistrate? The fact that he did not kill the magistrate himself and cause an overreaction by the authorities in Rome stands to his credit and would be typical of the man’s admirable combination of severity and subtlety.’
‘You make a plausible argument, Salvatore. Even so, where self-interest blinds many, it enlightens some, and I have always considered Agazio an enlightened man…’
‘Another thing we must bear in mind, Capo, is the unfortunate trend towards independence in Lombardy and Germany. That has already led to the need for punishment expeditions to the north and forceful realignments. We are constantly working to maintain the faith and loyalty of the locali in Milan and Germany.’
‘That is a generational problem that affects the younger men in the ’ ndrine of Lombardy. These youths speak with Milanese accents and deal with northern separatists who despise the south. But Agazio Curmaci is in some ways the opposite. He reinforces the rituals and maintains the tradition. He is not interested in independence. He was born in Gerace.’
‘Typical of the rebels is their willingness to use persons external to the Society. It seems East Europeans were used in this case,’ said Salvatore.
‘Why did I not know that?’
‘We have only just found out.’
Basile slowly removed his apron. Although it was splashed and stained, he folded it up as neatly as if freshly washed and ironed. ‘Salvatore, it pains me to say this, but could your suspicions of Curmaci be connected to your kinship with Tony Megale? Your father and Domenico Megale’s father were cousins and blood brothers.’
‘They were, and my sister married Domenico’s martyred brother.’
‘What happened to him was tragic. Some things are not healed by time.’
Salvatore bowed his head in memory of a brother-in-law killed thirty years earlier. Then, his posture still prayerful, he said, ‘It makes no sense for Tony Megale to have done this.’
‘Who was the fool who says otherwise?’ said Basile.
‘Not a fool, Capo. I can see his name in your thoughts.’
‘So now you read my thoughts and call me a fool?’ said Basile with a smile.
‘I would ask again,’ said Salvatore, ‘what interest could Tony have in doing something such as this?’
‘To make good men like you have evil thoughts about the Curmacis,’ said Basile. ‘If he and Agazio have had another falling out, as they did in the early years, Tony might have tried to frame Agazio.’
‘I think we must appeal to Domenico,’ said Salvatore.
‘Sadly, Domenico cannot make it to Polsi this year. They say he grew old in prison, though I believe he is no older than me. If Agazio and Tony have become enemies, it may well be a battle for succession. I would not wish to put Domenico in a difficult position. He has always expressed full faith in both Tony and Agazio, and, apart from that misunderstanding many years ago when they were immature, they have since expressed full faith in each other. Curmaci’s son Ruggiero has been partly brought up by Tony’s sister-in-law. Domenico cannot be seen to choose the wrong side, and it is inhuman to ask him to. It may be a decision we have to take for him. For now, his very silence is a message.’
‘We do nothing?’
Basile tested the thawing of the ice cream by pressing a small indent with his thumb. ‘Quarrels would not last long if the fault were on one side only. It might be both are to blame, it is more likely neither is.’
‘May I speak frankly?’
Basile sighed. ‘I would prefer to have this argument done with.’
‘So would I. But we will achieve greater peace and harmony by promoting the cause of Tony Megale. I say that not because we are related, but because his father…’
‘Not his natural father,’ interrupted Basile.
‘Even so. The Megales are more established. The Curmacis are new. Agazio’s father was the first. They have no roots.’
‘The Megales have few people left here. Perhaps they are on the wane.’
‘They have a man, Pietro.’
‘Pietro is limited.’
‘But he is a man. Curmaci left only his woman and her children.’
‘I say we do nothing for now.’
Salvatore nodded. It was time to play his trump card. He pulled out a phone, and placed it on the counter, amid the droplets now falling from the sides of the ice-cream container. ‘As you know, the Finance Police have tapped Agazio’s home number. This conversation took place last night. I had it sent to me as a matter of urgency. A captain of the Finance Police is about to get a new car, thanks to this act of cooperation.’
He pressed a button, and a woman’s voice could be heard. ‘That’s Maria Itria. The man she is speaking to is Agazio.’
‘I recognize their voices, Salvatore. They are talking about his arrival… what’s incriminating about that?’
‘Wait… coming up now.’
Maria Itria: ‘ What do you want for your dinner on your first night home with your family? Something special? A spezzatino d’agghjiru. I know just the person who can get me the ingredients.’
Agazio: ‘Too fancy. And you always overspice it. A good plate of Maccarruni cu’zugu ra Crapa e ru Porcu. That’s what I prefer.’
Maria Itria: ‘Maccarruni cu’zugu ra Crapa e ru Porcu? ’
Agazio: ‘? Si. Boni! Also, it’s legal. Imagine if some policeman were listening to us now. If they had nothing better to do than to listen to us, then maybe they’d try to arrest you for killing and cooking a dormouse for your returning husband. Better cook me some pork and pasta!’
Basile raised his hands. ‘I don’t see what’s so damning about that.’
‘Capo, that was code.’
‘It may have been a joke code, Salvatore. They know the Finance Police are listening. Agazio even teases them.’
‘It was emergency code, Capo, and you know it. He sent her a warning.’
‘My ice cream is melting, Salvatore.’
‘He was telling her to flee.’
‘He was telling her eating dormice is illegal.’
‘He was trying to cover up the shocked pause she made when he asked for Maccarruni cu’zugu ra Crapa e ru Porcu. He knows about the confession and he’s trying to save her.’
‘Bring the tray of ice cream out into the cooler in the bar, Salvatore.’
Salvatore did as he was told, removing his white hat and flinging it onto the counter as he left the kitchen. He dripped the tray into the slot, and picked up a star-shaped sign on the end of a short spike, and sunk it into the green mass, muttering to himself, ‘Sickly
… sits in the stomach like a brick, tastes of…’
‘Did you just stick the mint sign into my pistachio ice cream?’ said Basile, his voice coming from directly behind Salvatore’s head.
Salvatore kept his head bent down and his voice casual. ‘Silly mistake, Capo. I must be preoccupied with other things.’ He stuck in the right sign, and turned to face his boss.
‘I want the children to taste my latest ice cream,’ said Basile. ‘Have a group of them brought here after football practice tomorrow morning. Remove their phones, and we shall keep them out of circulation for a few hours. Agazio’s son Ruggiero and Tony’s son Enrico must be among them. They are best friends anyhow, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, they are.’
‘Good. They can stay here all afternoon.’
‘You know Enrico’s aunt will panic immediately if Enrico misses his lunch. You know what Rosa is like.’
‘I know about Zia Rosa. She has overfed and coddled that child. It is hard to imagine he is really Tony Megale’s son. Old Megale could at least disown him as not his flesh and blood, but Tony must claim him as his own. That child needs some toughening up. Ruggiero, on the other hand, is like a reincarnation of his father. I see something in him.’
‘I agree that Enrico is hardly a worthy successor, but he’s young yet.’
‘Not so young he can’t start acting like a man. Perhaps it is time to give him some lessons in courage.’
‘As I say, Zia Rosa will certainly panic when Enrico vanishes for a few hours. That could be misconstrued.’
‘I told you, I know. We shall consider how the families react and draw conclusions later,’ said Basile. ‘If Maria Itria, who keeps her neighbours at a distance, were to start phoning and visiting them inquiring in worried tones about Ruggiero, that, too, might signal a bad conscience. Do not forewarn the Megales or any other family, Salvatore. Make sure the sons of several families are here tomorrow. We must be seen to be just.’
‘I’ll have the sea bass,’ said Magistrate Bazza. ‘And you?’
Magistrate Fossati shook his head. ‘I can never get used to the idea of fish in Milan…’ He looked at the menu without enthusiasm. ‘I’ll have the mix of cold cuts,’ he told the waiter. ‘Just water to drink.’
The waiter collected the menus and left.
‘You should try the fish.’
‘You know I’m from Livorno, Ezio. When I visit my parents’ graves, I eat fresh local fish. My mother used to make a fantastic cacciucco. Actually, I don’t usually eat at lunchtime. I’d have preferred to meet for dinner in the usual place.’
‘I wanted to meet as soon as possible,’ said Magistrate Bazza. ‘Have you got the file on the missing girl?’
‘Teresa Resca. Yes.’ Fossati glanced around the room, then handed the file to his friend.
Bazza ate breadsticks as he glanced through the pages, then handed them back.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I can’t help.’
‘Definitely not organized crime. But that I can’t help is in itself an important pointer. For one, the modus operandi is needlessly complicated. From what I can see here there was a long stakeout in broad daylight, they depended on public transport and relied on a certain amount of luck. But I had my mind made up before I even looked at your file. This is not a Mafia abduction.’
‘Are you supposed to make up your mind like that before you even see the file?’ said Fossati.
‘There’s not much in that file that isn’t already in the public domain. Nothing to make me change my mind. This has nothing to do with the Ndrangheta or any other Mafia.’
‘Don’t the bastards you deal with ever reserve unpleasant surprises for you? Don’t they ever act out of character? I mean if you really knew everything about how they operate…’
‘You know how it works, Francesco. Intelligence gets you only so far. We know a hell of a lot but can’t act upon it. The Northern League and Berlusconi have cut our funding. Did you know that my colleagues in Calabria have to wash their own cars? And they can get fined for insubordination if they don’t. Then that creep Maroni with his pervert’s moustache and red glasses comes on TV and says his Ministry has done more to combat…’
‘Aw, don’t start that conversation again, Ezio,’ said Fossati. ‘I’m here about the girl.’
‘It’s not organized crime. That’s not where you should be looking. I would have heard a whisper. I spent the morning with a team of excellent Carabinieri analysing intercepted communications over the past six months, focusing on any reference to the girl and her father. The father got mentioned twice. It’s not enough. He hasn’t written any exposes in months anyhow. It makes no sense for them to decide to silence him when he is already silent.’
The waiter arrived with Fossati’s platter of cold salamis and hams. Fossati lifted a length of speck. ‘Help yourself,’ he told Bazza.
‘No. I’ll wait for my fish. So tell me about the rumour mill on your side of the building.’
‘Everyone’s interested in the murder of that insurance broker. The poor bastard with the same name as Magistrate Arconti.’
‘Interested, as in displeased the case went down to Rome and got bounced up to us in the anti-Mafia wing without anyone else getting a look-in?’
‘No. Just interested. Or not interested, as the case may be. There isn’t even enough belief or passion for magistrates to feel strongly about jurisdiction rights nowadays.’
‘They’re right to feel disheartened,’ said Bazza. ‘Almost everyone you and I investigated in the ’90s is in political office now. All we did was raise the cost of bribes. I don’t understand how you managed to stay on there.’
‘An ordinary magistrate manages to solve a lot of cases, put away people who have done real harm. I don’t know how you bear it in the anti-Mafia. Huge rolling investigations that never come to an end, the constant reminders of the extent of the infiltration of organized crime, the cowardice of politicians.’
‘When we manage to break a case, we order arrests in the hundreds. That’s always gratifying. We shut down entire systems, even if only temporarily. Ah, here’s my sea bass.’
Bazza smiled happily as he slipped off the shining skin, peeled away a layer of brown flesh and unpacked the fluffy white meat beneath, sucking his fingers as he did so. He fell silent until he was halfway through it, then said, ‘You had a strange run-in with that magistrate in Rome once, didn’t you?’
‘Arconti? Yes,’ said Fossati. ‘It was some time ago. I think it’s safe to say he won the bout.’
‘But you became friends afterwards?’
‘Friends… no. We wear different political colours. Magistratura Democratica versus Magistratura Indipendente and all that, though of course those allegiances were more important then than now. Arconti’s a Catholic conservative, but one of the better ones. At the time, I thought he was a pawn of the Christian Democrats, but I was wrong there. He’s not beholden to anyone, though I resented the way he assumed I was acting out of left-wing prejudice.’
‘He was right about you. At the time, you were highly politicized.’
‘And so were you.’
‘Those were the days,’ said Bazza. ‘Remind me how Arconti outsmarted you.’
‘I was investigating illegal party political funding, and Arconti’s name came up,’ said Fossati. ‘It looked to me like he had deliberately mishandled an inquiry into donations, and then intervened to persuade the preliminary judge to throw out the case for lack of evidence. Everything magistrates in Rome did back then was suspect.’
‘Such was the mood of the day. Turns out, we were no better here in Milan.’
‘I would contest that. But I was wrong about Arconti. I assumed he was obeying a political master, and I ordered a wiretap on him. It was easy to do that in the ’90s, remember? I had a go-to guy in the Finance Police, and he set it up, then reported back to me. By then, I was already beginning to guess that Arconti was clean. Remarkably clean, as a matter of fact. But being clean didn’t stop him from being a sly southerner. Somehow, he found out what I was doing. He took elements from several investigations and combined them in a way that dumped a lot of suspicion on the guy from the Finance Police I was using. He then applied for a wiretap on the policeman. So every time my man reported back to me on what he had heard Arconti say, Arconti was sitting there in Rome listening in. And the clever thing was, if he had tried to wiretap me directly, I would have probably found out. We were listening into one another for four months, and then one day he called me up himself, invited me down to Rome, and we spoke. He said he could see I was doing my best in difficult circumstances, and hoped I could see the same was true for him. The Finance policeman, by the way, got caught accepting bribes two years later.’
‘Arconti is in hospital. He was taken ill after the murder of his namesake.’
‘I am sorry to hear that,’ said Fossati.
‘This is confidential, Francesco, but we like a guy named Agazio Curmaci for the crime. He’s Ndrangheta.’
‘If it’s confidential, why are you telling me?’
‘Because we’ve been friends for twenty-five years, and I trust you and I thought you might like to know.’
‘Don’t exaggerate, it’s been only twenty-three years.’
‘Just after Mani Pulite ran completely out of steam and I jumped ship to the DDA, Curmaci was a young camorrista, freshly inducted into the “Honoured Society”, he killed five people.’
‘At one go?’
Bazza neatly peeled the skeleton from his fish and put it on the side of his plate. ‘All at one go. It was the detail of the killings that got my attention. He shot four, stabbed one to death. The one he stabbed was nineteen years old. Here’s the thing though, he had been told to kill one person only, a guy called Cava… Gra… I forget the name. Instead, he killed the guy’s parents, sister and brother. That was the one he stabbed. The only person he did not kill was the target. Transversal revenge, as they say.’
‘What happened to the target?’
‘He was so enraged and terrified, he tried to turn to the authorities for help, but his evidence was not seen as reliable, and he lost his right to protection. So that was the end of him. Vanished without trace. Shortly afterwards, Curmaci went to Germany. Within one year he was reporting directly to Domenico Megale, also known as Megale Senior, Megale u Vecchiu, or the Prefect of Westphalia.’
‘Prefect of Westphalia. The arrogance of these people.’
‘It didn’t stop him from ending up in jail. He got put away by the BKA, one of their first successful operations against an Italian boss, thanks to an investigation into a tax scam involving VAT, but I don’t think prison made much difference to him. He’s out now, by the way. Just got released two days ago. His son, a killer called Tony, held a homecoming party. I don’t know if Curmaci was there or not.’
‘You’ve been looking into the Megales and Curmaci for a while, then. This is not something you picked up just the other day,’ said Fossati.
‘You’re right. And one of the people who has been helping me is Magistrate Arconti. That’s why I was interested in your opinion of him.’
‘Favourable, I suppose. I have finished my salami, Ezio, so can you say why you want me to know all this?’
‘I told you, because you know Arconti.’
‘Actually, there is something else. Arconti became involved in this case when he was called in to investigate the suspicious suicide of a doctor who was prescribing one of the admixtures they use to cut cocaine. He and a Roman commissioner, Alec Blume, quickly moved from that to an operation that led to the arrest of two low-ranking members of the Ndrangheta. Arconti should have passed the case on to the anti-Mafia before he got that far, but he didn’t.’
‘I disagree, but never mind. He and this commissioner arrested two brothers who were cousins of Curmaci’s wife. Arconti then started looking into Curmaci, which even you will admit is beyond his scope of competence. But I know the reason he did this. Arconti is from Gerace in Calabria, the same town as Curmaci, though a generation separates them. It’s personal for him. In the meantime we have another case, or perhaps a development of this one.’
‘Those bodies discovered in the Falck steelworks in Sesto San Giovanni? I got the impression it was low-level stuff, Albanians murdering each other or something,’ said Fossati.
‘Romanians. Thanks to some decent and rapid work by the commissioner and an inspector, a woman, Mattiola, a direct link has been made between the bodies found there and the Arconti murder. For the time being, we have decided not to let the investigators in Rome know about this.’
‘That’s a shame for the police. They do their job well, and their reward is to be excluded.’
‘I will put them back in the picture when the time comes. The point is, we might be seeing the start of an upset in the balance of power.’
‘You know I am in the middle of this kidnapping of a girl, which you yourself just told me is unconnected with the Ndrangheta?’
‘I know. I’ll let you go now. But just one more thing.’
‘You said “just one more thing” five minutes ago, Ezio. I’m going now. You get the bill, I’ll get it next time.’ Fossati stood up.
‘Wait. Domenico Megale — the boss in Germany?’
‘What about him?’
‘He has two main points of reference. One is Agazio Curmaci, who is the Mastro di giornata of the German locale. The other is his son, Antonio, who’s always been known as Tony. Tony is the crimine. Tony was once married, but his wife died, leaving him a son, who’s in Calabria. His wife’s surname was Mancuso.’
Fossati sat down again. ‘For God’s sake, Ezio, you could have told me this at the beginning.’
‘No, first I needed to tell you the girl’s kidnapping is not Mafia related.’
‘And now you’re telling me the opposite. Giovanni Resca, her father, wrote article after article detailing the investments made by the Mancusos in Milan. His article specifically names that family, time and time again. They made threats against him.’
‘So are you going to investigate the Mancuso family?’
‘I already am, to the best of my ability with the resources I have.’
‘I told you, it’s not Mafia related. It’s not them.’
‘How can you know?’
‘Like I said, the modus operandi isn’t right, but mainly because we’ve been monitoring the Mancusos closely for some time now. We recently picked up a lot of chat between one of them and someone in Germany. We can’t identify who, but it could be Curmaci and it could be Tony Megale or even Old Megale. But my point is, there is no indication that they are really concerned by Giovanni Resca and his anti-Mafia blogs and articles. I’m telling you this because I think you’ll be wasting your time if you pursue that path while looking for the girl.’
‘Duly noted. It’s not the only line of inquiry I am following.’
‘My advice is don’t concentrate on the Mancusos, OK? It’s not them.’
‘I’ll take that into account,’ said Fossati.
‘But you’re still going to look into them?’
‘Of course I am. How can I not?’
‘I knew you wouldn’t drop that line of inquiry just on my say-so. That’s another reason I wanted to talk to you. Seeing as you, despite my advice to the contrary, will be looking into the Mancusos and their properties, will you let me know if you find anything interesting?’
‘Anything in particular?’
‘Anything at all. Specifically, anything that might be connected to Curmaci, East European criminals, or the murder of the insurance actuary Matteo Arconti.’
‘So while I hunt for a stolen child, I carry out a covert check for you guys in the anti-Mafia?’
‘Only if you are going to waste your time looking where you won’t find the poor child. Don’t get me wrong, Francesco, I would prefer you to find the missing girl, and I wish you would take my advice and follow any other leads.’
‘I will follow other leads, and I see why you think this was not organized crime. But I need to follow this one, too.’
‘Let’s hope you find her, even if…’ Bazza looked down at the discarded skin and bones of his fish.
‘I know,’ said Fossati. ‘Too much time has already passed.’
Sunday, 30 August
‘Pepe, Luca, Giovanni, Enrico, Ruggiero, Rocco. All of you, get over here.’
Pepe rolled his freshly lit cigarette between his fingers, then let it drop lightly to the ground. Luca, Giovanni and Rocco stopped aiming karate kicks at each other, Enrico received a pass from Ruggiero and flicked the ball up and into his hands. They all started walking towards their football coach.
Enrico cast Ruggiero a questioning glance. Ruggiero ignored him. He felt the others picking up on Enrico’s uncertainty and storing it away for future use. Almost certainly none of them knew what the coach wanted, but they knew it was important to look as if they did. Pepe was even nodding, as if he had been expecting this.
‘What is it, coach?’ said Enrico.
‘A little discussion of tactics, down at Mr Basile’s place,’ said the coach. ‘Now.’
‘Not on the pitch?’ asked Enrico, his voice a squeak of protest and surprise.
Luca spat on the ground, just behind Enrico’s heel. ‘You heard him, Enrico.’
‘Are you coming, coach?’ asked Enrico.
‘Maybe later.’ Their coach pulled a clear plastic bag from inside his Adidas tracksuit, and held it open in front of Enrico.
‘What’s that for?’ asked the boy.
‘It’s for putting things into, Enrico. Let’s start with your mobile.’
Enrico turned around and looked at his friends uncomprehendingly. Pepe already had his iPhone out, and was the first to drop it into the bag. Luca, Giovanni and Rocco followed. Ruggiero delayed a little, carefully pulling out his phone, giving Enrico all the time he needed to see what he was supposed to do, then dropped it into the bag. He nodded at Enrico, trying to communicate to him the need for silence and obedience.
His hints weren’t enough.
‘My aunt wants me to call her. She said I have to call if I’m not going straight home after practice.’ He slid open his phone. ‘I’ll call her now, tell her we’re going to the bar. She won’t mind.’
Ruggiero stepped forward and plucked the phone from Enrico’s hand, and tossed it towards the coach who opened the mouth of the plastic bag wide to catch it on the fly. The coach turned quickly on his heel and walked away from them, saying, ‘I’ll see you kids later.’
Pepe was already on his motor scooter, gunning the throttle, checking his lean face and the fit of his sunglasses in the rear-view mirror. Luca clambered on behind him, but Pepe hit him hard in the throat with the heel of his hand, knocking him sprawling to the ground. Luca stood up, dusted himself down and laughed, like it had been a rehearsed stunt. Rocco, who had the other scooter, nodded to Giovanni, who climbed aboard, and they were off, leaving a swirl of dust and a scent of fuel behind.
Pepe said something, his words drowned out by the rip and roaring of the scooter motor as he revved it. Then he let go of the throttle and spoke into the sudden silence, ‘Enrico, get on.’
Enrico looked in panic at Luca, who turned away in disgust, then to Ruggiero, who shrugged. Finally he found his voice. ‘Thanks, Pepe, I can walk. It’s only ten minutes.’
Pepe turned off the motor, dismounted and moved towards Enrico, who retreated behind Ruggiero.
‘You don’t want to ride from me?’
‘I can walk.’
‘Yeah.’ Pepe looked down the hill and over the half-built run-down houses. ‘You’ll be there in ten minutes, right? No detours.’
‘No detours,’ promised Enrico.
Pepe ignored him. ‘Ruggiero, you’ll see to it, won’t you?’
Ruggiero said, ‘I’ll bring him straight there. Along with myself.’
‘You need a scooter to get around on. What are you waiting for?’
‘My mother thinks it should be my father who gets it for me.’
Pepe nodded. ‘That’s good. When is he getting back?’
‘I don’t know these things, and I don’t ask.’
Pepe stared at Ruggiero, before giving him the slightest of nods, imperceptible to the others. Then he jerked his head and Luca, nervously laughing and fingering his throat, climbed aboard again, and they left.
Ruggiero took Enrico by the elbow and propelled him forwards. ‘Come on.’
They set off down the hill together. Almost every house they passed had added a second floor years ago, but none of them had ever completed the work. The most advanced were those that had managed to put up pillars and a roof, but no walls, giving the buildings the look of having been gutted by bombing. Some homeowners had ambitiously begun work on a third level. Twisted steel rebars protruded from every roof. Everything was still in the early stages of construction and in the final stages of decay. Enrico hesitated for a moment as they passed the intersection leading to his house where he lived with Aunt Rosa and Uncle Pietro, but Ruggiero gave him a push. ‘We were told to go directly. They took our phones. We’re not to talk to anyone. That has to be clear even to you.’
‘What have we done?’
‘I don’t know, Enrico. Probably nothing. Maybe it’s someone else who’s done something, or just a test of obedience. Or maybe it’s some sort of preparation for the festivities on September 2nd or tactics, like Coach said. We’ll find out.’
‘I’m worried something’s going to happen. Why did they take our phones?’
‘To make us disappear for a while.’
‘My aunt will be worried sick if I don’t contact her,’ said Enrico. ‘Sunday lunch. You know what she’s like.’
Ruggiero nodded. Zia Rosa, as he also called her, though she was not his aunt, lived her life in a state of fretfulness and, according to Enrico, slept no more than three hours a night, though how sleepy Enrico would know that was a mystery. Perhaps Enrico’s uncle, the strong-smelling and slow-witted Pietro, had told him, but if so, that would mean he would have had to speak, which is not something Ruggiero had often heard him do.
They entered the silent piazza and headed towards the bar. Two empty chairs and a tin table sat next to the door, which was covered in a heavy bead curtain. A faded chart showing ghostly Motta ice creams and smudged prices still quoted in lire was nailed to the wall.
‘It’s already closed for the afternoon,’ said Enrico in relief. ‘The scooters aren’t here. They must have gone home.’
Maybe Enrico was right. Mr Basile’s bar and gelateria kept irregular opening hours. On any given afternoon it could be closed while its owner sunned himself on the white sand. Closed meant unoccupied by Basile or Salvatore. They never locked the bar, because no one for any reason would ever think of taking anything from it, not even a glass of water, without permission. Basile loved the sun. It had burned him deep brown, caused melanomas to prosper on his back, and wrinkled the skin of his face, but still he went, the only sunbather on the horseshoe-shaped beach, sitting in front of the half-built villas, rusting metal cages, breeze blocks and paralysed cement mixers, soaking it all up.
He never swam in the bright blue waters of the sea in front of him, just lay there all afternoon, smiling up at the sky, his wife dead these ten years, his three sons lost in 1991, the year the war between the Cataldo and Cordi families finally ended.
Ruggiero realized Mr Basile would have told the others not to park their scooters in front of the bar, which explained the empty piazza. Just as he was about to point this out to Enrico, the bead curtain parted and Basile’s faithful ancient retainer, Salvatore, thin and sprightly, waved the two boys inside.
Walk in if invited, even if you know. His father had told him that that was the sign of true courage. He would have felt better if his father were here now. But all their fathers were abroad, in Milan, Turin, Spain, Slovenia and Germany. He was not alone in being alone.
With Enrico right behind him, Ruggiero brushed the beads aside with the back of his hand, and stepped inside the dark bar.
They had been inside the bar for an hour and a half now, and no one had said anything to them. The only absolute if unspoken condition was that they remained there until told they could go. Ruggiero watched as Enrico made his way through the pistachio ice cream, then quietly offered him his, saying, ‘I haven’t touched it.’
Enrico waited impatiently until Ruggiero had put the ice cream in front of him, then set to it like he was being chased. Ruggiero thought no one had noticed, but then Salvatore, who served at the bar without anyone ever thinking of him as a barman, came over.
‘You don’t like Mr Basile’s ice cream?’
Enrico raised his eyes for a moment, smiled sleepily at them both, then returned to spooning the sweet green cream from the wafer cup into his mouth.
‘I’m just not hungry,’ said Ruggiero.
‘It was a generous gesture. What sort of ingrate would turn down a gift from Mr Basile?’
‘I’m not hungry,’ repeated Ruggiero, knowing, without being able to do much about it, that he was speaking in a tone of detached contempt for Salvatore, and that this would do him no favours. He could have said more. The ice cream was bright green and over-sugared. Its sweetness made him gag. The bits of nut that Basile left in to give it a natural taste were surrounded by crystals of frost, and chewing through them felt like a chore. Ruggiero could remember when the gelateria was run by Pino Nicaso, a man who knew his trade and then was pointlessly put out of business by Salvatore and Basile, bringing to an end the only happy place in town.
Salvatore left them alone and did not, as Ruggiero had feared, return to force-feed him one of Basile’s special treats.
The other kids had started playing table football. Abandoning Ruggiero in the corner, Enrico went up to join in, but was made to watch instead, and then pushed roughly aside by Luca who blamed Enrico’s flab for getting in the way and allowing Giovanni to score.
Pepe had chosen to play the poker machine, and remained impassive as the machine dealt him hand after hand in defiance of all rules of fairness and statistical probability. He had a thunderbolt design shaved into the back of his crew cut. He kept his face turned towards the screen and away from his companions, but Ruggiero knew the screen also had a mirror effect, and he was watching them as they stole surreptitious glances at his back.
Ruggiero, as sometimes happened, seemed to have become invisible in his corner. He was hungry, but for real food. A Sunday meal prepared by his mother, not the vile ice cream or, worse still, one of the stale bar sandwiches wrapped in plastic. He was bored, too. Bored with the table football and the tough-guy curses of his companions, bored with defending Enrico from attack, bored with the ugly furniture and the sly bald Salvatore, said to have used a meat cleaver to cut the arms, legs and cock off a policeman in the 1960s. The policeman, the story went, survived and lived the rest of his days in bed, though without female company. Maybe none of it was true.
Once again, as so often happened, the joshing and casual teasing of Enrico’s lack of skill had hardened and grown colder. Enrico, sweating with effort, still lost nine-one to Luca and was told to fuck off and stop wasting everyone’s time.
He came back over to Ruggiero and sat down heavily beside him like a wet seal. His arrival put Ruggiero back inside the exclusion zone in which Enrico lived. When Enrico was near him, Ruggiero could clearly see the hostility and contempt of those who looked in their direction. All he had to do was step outside the zone, away from Enrico, and the hostile looks became almost invisible again. Yet Enrico’s father Tony was both feared and respected: more the former than the latter. His uncle Pietro was at least feared. It was the contrast with them that did Enrico no favours. As to his own family, Ruggiero knew that no one quite trusted his father, his mother or him. They were regarded as excessively reserved and insufficiently local. Most of the time he was quite comfortable with it; now he felt under pressure, and he knew, even if Enrico was too dim to recognize it, that some sort of test was being done on them, not on the other kids.
The front door of the bar, closed to the public, was opened to admit a small man with dirty skin and a white beard, whom Ruggiero recognized as a friend or relation of some sort of Salvatore. He was dressed in the dark-green working clothes of the forestry protection corps, the one state uniform that it was no dishonour to wear. Ruggiero was not entirely sure of the status of the scruffy visitor, but he knew it was surprisingly high. His name was Tommasino and his job was to clear the woods of undergrowth and cull foxes. Occasionally he lit summer fires that raged for days and were reported on the national news. The burned-out land was perfect for construction developments, and the firefighting equipment and firefighters themselves were all part of a supply racket run by the locale of the town, whose boss was Basile.
‘What are all these kids doing in the bar, Salvatore? I come in here after a day’s toil expecting a quiet grappa, and I find myself in a schoolroom, or is it a Cubs’ meeting?’ He grinned, showing yellow teeth. One of his incisors was snapped in half. ‘Get them out of here.’
‘You heard him,’ said Salvatore. ‘Time to go home.’
Obediently they moved away from the table. Pepe made one more play on the poker machine, then casually walked towards the door. Enrico took larger and faster spoonfuls of ice cream.
Tommasino lifted a stinking jute bag off the floor and handed it to Pepe. Pepe glanced into the bag, and smiled, then pulled out their six phones and dropped them on the counter.
‘I happened to meet your coach,’ said Tommasino. ‘He said he was sorry he couldn’t make it and asked me to give you these, and I was happy to do a favour. Go on, take them, turn them on. You’ll need to phone your mothers and apologize.’
Salvatore motioned Pepe over to him, and whispered a few words.
The forester looked across at Enrico, who was just now finishing his ice cream. ‘You’re Pietro’s nephew.’
‘I am Tony Megale’s son,’ said Enrico, an unexpected upsurge of pride and defiance in his voice.
‘That goes without saying. I happen to know Pietro, not Tony. How about a beer?’
Enrico looked around for help, but Ruggiero, fed up with it all, cast his eyes down and looked away. He just wanted to go home. He stretched out his hand to pick up his phone, but Pepe snatched it up first.
‘Give me that,’ said Ruggiero, more bored than intimidated by Pepe’s antics.
Pepe tossed it to Salvatore behind the bar. ‘Ask him for it.’
Salvatore stepped back and allowed the phone to hit the floor in front of him. He stood there immobile, his bald head balanced like a skull on the top of his thin body. Pepe whitened and apologized, then came around the bar to retrieve the phone from the floor and put it on the counter beside Enrico’s. Then he and the other three left in silence.
Salvatore fixed Ruggiero with a stare that lasted only a few seconds, then turned his back. Ruggiero left his phone where it was.
A minute later, the silence of the piazza was ripped apart by the noise of souped-up scooters.
‘What about it, Enrico, will you buy me a beer?’ asked the forester, when the noise had died away.
‘I don’t think I have the money,’ said Enrico. ‘I would if I had it. Maybe I could borrow some from Ruggiero?’
‘ Figluolo mio. I am joking. I am the one who buys the beers in here, isn’t that right, Salvatore?’
Salvatore draped a damp bar cloth over his shoulder and said nothing.
‘I don’t want a beer,’ said Enrico, making to stand up then deciding to sit down again.
Ruggiero puffed out his cheeks in exasperation, and went over to sit next to Enrico, who was going to need help.
‘Thanks,’ whispered Enrico.
Ruggiero shrugged. The forester came over and sat down beside them, bringing with him a smell of wood chippings, urine, sweat and tobacco.
‘Then you’re having a grappa.’
‘I don’t drink,’ said Enrico.
‘Maybe if you learned to drink, you wouldn’t eat so much, Enrico. Salvatore, no more of Basile’s ice cream for the boy.’
Salvatore, who was bent down and talking through the serving hatch to someone in the kitchen, presumably Basile, raised a hand either in acknowledgment or to tell Tommasino to be quiet. Either way, the forester lowered his voice and spoke in a furious whisper to Enrico. ‘You don’t refuse a drink from me when I generously offer you one.’
‘Sorry,’ said Enrico.
Tommasino called out, ‘Salvatore, let’s put some water in Enrico’s grappa. Make it half water half spirit, like Enrico himself.’
Salvatore nodded. Out of a satchel, Tommasino produced some dark bread and a shiny yellow cheese studded with hot chili peppers. He started paring his cheese with a wooden-handled curved knife. Salvatore arrived with a bottle of grappa and a jug of water.
Tommasino poured Enrico a glass and sat watching as he drank it, then poured him another, then another, ignoring Enrico’s burbling protests and clicking his knife open and shut.
‘What about you, young Curmaci? Want a drink?’
Ruggiero refused with a barely perceptible lift of the chin and a slow closing of his eyelids. No one should expect him to have to speak to the stinking, unlettered forester. He chose a point behind Tommasino’s head and focused on it, allowing the forester’s murderous gaze to hit the wall behind him. If they were alone, he might have returned the gaze, see what came of it. He felt calm enough.
After half an hour, Salvatore came over and said, ‘Enrico, you can go home now. Pick up your phone on the counter.’
‘What about Ruggiero?’
‘You can tell your aunt he was delayed here.’
Enrico tried to bring his eyes into focus. ‘My aunt will tell his mother. So wouldn’t it make more sense…’ — but he lost track of his line of argument.
‘Tell his mother, too,’ said Salvatore, ‘if you think that will help.’
Enrico reached over and grabbed the bottle and poured himself another grappa. ‘I’m not leaving without Ruggiero!’ He downed the glass in a single gulp and spent the next few minutes coughing and wiping the tears from his eyes.
Another half hour passed and now the bottle on the table was empty and the glass in front of Enrico had tumbled over. Enrico’s face was flushed, his eyes shone bright and his head was lolling from side to side. Cheese rinds lay curled on the table.
‘Salvatore?’ asked Tommasino.
From behind the bar, Salvatore nodded.
He brought over their phones and placed them on the table, giving Ruggiero a wink as he did so. Ruggiero remained impassive, and waited until Salvatore had withdrawn before picking up his phone, and standing up.
Enrico had begun moaning and muttering something incomprehensible.
The forester cackled as if at some private joke, then left the table and went up to the bar counter. ‘Young Megale has drunk too much,’ he said to Salvatore.
‘That’s fine. His good friend Ruggiero is here to look after him. The Curmacis are renowned for their loyalty. The Curmacis and Megales are old friends, working together in faraway hostile lands.’
‘Let’s hope the alliance lasts. It seems to me Enrico is as much a liability as a friend. Here, young Curmaci, what do you want us to do with Enrico?’
‘He’s my responsibility,’ said Ruggiero. I’ll look after him and take him home.’
Monday, 31 August
‘Interesting times, Blume,’ said Massimiliani, ushering him through the visitors’ area without a pass. He lowered his voice as they walked quickly down a corridor towards a tinted window that turned the outside world dark orange.
‘I have a good friend in the German Federal Police. You’ll be meeting him later. This morning, he started talking about Curmaci, and so I pushed him a little and he said he had heard Curmaci was cooperating with the Italian authorities. I said I would have to look Curmaci up, find out who he was, but my BKA friend did not believe me. He seemed quite agitated at the idea that Curmaci might be talking to some Italian magistrate. Isn’t that good? Your lie has gone international over a single weekend.’
‘Why would they be agitated if Curmaci were cooperating with us?’
‘Good question. It makes me wonder if Curmaci might be cooperating with them. I doubt it, but even if he is not actively cooperating with the BKA, he could be partly under their protection thanks to his high-level contacts. We almost never get high-level informers from the Ndrangheta. Ten a penny in the Mafia these days, but not the Calabrians. It would be very frustrating if the Germans got there first. I just think they are worried that if Curmaci were talking to us, we’d find out about things happening in Germany of which they are unaware.’
‘And we don’t really want him talking to the BKA in case he tells them about things in Italy we know nothing about.’
‘Fear of losing face is the greatest impediment to international cooperation, but we actually get on reasonably well with the BKA. Better than you might expect. I’m going to take you down to meet him in a minute.’
He led Blume into an empty conference room with large screens.
‘This is where we show off what the DCSA does. Like the war rooms in the movies? Except when the globe lights up with red lines, they are mobile phone connections we are tracking rather than nuclear missiles. Let me check the BKA guy’s in my office. I’ll send someone down to collect you.’
Blume sat in the room alone, and looked around for something interesting to do. On the podium, he found a laser pointer, and spent some time causing the green dot to play over the DCSA emblem.
The conference room door opened and a small man in a wide brown tie and thick glasses looked around in confusion at not finding anyone within his immediate field of vision. Blume danced the laser beam at him, and the man held up his arms over his face. Blume half expected him to shout, ‘Don’t shoot,’ but all he said was, ‘I was told to fetch you.’
As he followed the man down a long, featureless corridor flanked by closed doors, his phone came to life and started pulling in missed call messages. Caterina had phoned twice.
He stopped and called her back, allowing the man in the brown tie to reach the end of the corridor before realizing Blume was no longer at his heels. He came beetling back wagging an angry finger, but Caterina had already answered.
‘Where have you been?’ she demanded.
Blume glanced at his wrist where his watch used to be, and said, ‘It’s still Monday morning. I’ve been in bed.’
‘I mean yesterday and the day before.’
‘That was a Sunday. It was my day off. Saturday… stuff to do. Paperwork, mostly.’
‘You’re not allowed to do paperwork at home. Anyhow, I don’t believe that’s what you were doing.’
‘I don’t have time for a to-and-fro between us. If you want — ’
‘They’ve taken the case out of our hands. They found the van in Sesto San Giovanni and,’ she paused for effect, ‘it was burned out and two bodies were found inside. I had to find this out for myself. Only now has the Milan magistrate admitted it to me.’
‘When did they say the van was found?’
‘Friday. They’ve been sitting on the information, making a fool of us. Not of you, though, you backed out of this from the start, didn’t you?’
‘I was giving you breathing space.’
‘Don’t worry about that. I get all the air I need in the large empty spaces you like to leave between us.’
‘I was talking at a professional level. You don’t want me there all the time.’
‘But you knew from the start my investigation was a dead-end.’
Blume started to make a protesting noise, then decided not to bother.
‘You knew and you said nothing,’ she insisted.
‘No. Not at all,’ he said. Accurate or not in her reckoning, it was not right for her to accuse him like this. He turned his back on the man in the brown tie, who was literally hopping with impatience, like a fat chaffinch.
‘Liar,’ said Caterina, and hung up.
He swung round savagely at the bouncing functionary. ‘Next time you wag that finger you’ll be wagging it up…’ But he stopped. The man in front of him, who barely reached his chest, seemed on the verge of tears.
‘I have a very tight schedule,’ he squeezed his legs together and twisted his body as if he was holding his bladder. ‘Can you please hurry?’
Blume took pity, and they proceeded at a smart pace down hallways and up stairs, and then the small man popped open a door and led him into a dark, narrow room, the size of a large utility cupboard. A small hopper window near the ceiling slanted inward, allowing in dark air that reminded Blume of the smell of Line A of the Metro. The gunmetal desk spanned the narrow space between the walls, leaving the tiniest gap for the man to squeeze through, which he set about doing at once, as if anticipating that this would take some time, as indeed it did. Blume reflected that it would have been quicker to clamber over the desktop, which had nothing on it.
The man finally reached his seat behind the desk and sat down. He then looked up with a slight frown of annoyance as if he had been sitting there busily working away and Blume was an unexpected and unwelcome visitor. The pleading demeanour evident in the corridor was quite gone now, and he nodded curtly at the third object in the room, a seat, identical to his own, on Blume’s side. He pulled open a drawer, extracted a thin phone and placed it on the table.
‘This is your new phone,’ he said. ‘I need to see the one you have now.’
Blume was interested in seeing where this was leading. He took his clunky old Nokia out of his pocket and set it on the desk between them next to the sleek new Samsung.
‘I see,’ said the man, looking at the Nokia with disfavour. ‘This new one is a Samsung Smartphone — I have forgotten which model, but it will tell you its name when you turn it on. For now it has but one phone number in it, listed under “Mamma”. That’s us. If we call, please answer. We have a trace on this phone, of course, so we’ll know where you are… umm…’ He drummed his fingers on the empty desk trying to think of other features.
‘Anyhow, you can keep it afterwards. Like a perk. That’s something. Touch screen, Android operating system, built-in GPS navigator, MP3 player, Bluetooth, internet enabled, and it will connect to all four providers, TIM, Vodafone, Tre and Wind. I don’t know how they did that. Don’t use it for personal calls for the next few days. Nothing sinister, just our standard practice.’ He pointed to Blume’s old Nokia. ‘I am going to take that, OK?’
‘No,’ said Blume. ‘Not OK.’
‘Is it police issue or personal?’
‘Both,’ said Blume. ‘Police issue, but it’s the one I use for everything, You’re not having it. It’s not legal for you to have it.’
The man nodded in complete understanding, but stretched out his hand anyway. Blume grabbed his phone back. The man withdrew his hand as if bitten by a snake. The Smartphone sat on the table between them.
‘If you take the Samsung, I’ll have accomplished 50 per cent of my task. Will you at least take it?’
Blume took it and slipped it into his pocket. ‘Thanks for the gift. You realize I have no idea who you are or what this is about?’
The man relaxed. ‘That explains it. You haven’t been briefed yet. Let me check.’
He pulled out a phone, identical to the one he had just handed to Blume, and pressed its screen. ‘Yes, me… He came here first… Right. He still has his old phone by the way. Oh yes, I suppose that makes more sense…’
He dropped the phone back into his pocket and extended his hand. ‘Well, it’s been a pleasure.’
As Blume took his hand, the door behind them opened and Captain Massimiliano Massimiliani entered.
‘Sorry about that, Alec. You were taken to the wrong room. Or the right room in the wrong order. We’re just down the corridor here, will you come through?’
Pausing before a door, Massimiliani put his hand on Blume’s shoulder. ‘Just before we go in there, two things. First, the German agent is the liaison officer of the BKA to the anti-Mafia and he really is a friend of mine. He’s completely trustworthy.’
‘Oh, yes. I don’t tell him much, of course, but if I did, I am pretty certain he would treat the information responsibly. Now, as much as I have great faith in my friend, I would ask you not to fall for his absent-minded stoner act. He often claims he does not understand, but it’s all an act. Mind what you say.’
Massimiliani opened the door and ushered him in. The man inside stood up and introduced himself rapidly, almost before Blume had taken stock of him.
‘Kommissar Blume, I am Kriminaloberrat Winfried Weissmann,’ he spoke English. ‘Please call me Winfried.’
‘Winfried?’ Blume had a distant memory of his father mentioning a great-grandmother who had the same name. Or was that Winifred? The man in front of him must once have had a full shock of Afro-style hair in his youth. What was left was still frizzy and wild, but it was also snow white and had receded so far from his forehead that it now sat like a pile of freshly shorn wool on the back of his head. Although at least sixty years old, he wore a denim jacket and a red-and-green checked shirt, but, whether in deference to his official function or in recognition of his age, he also wore a shiny pale-blue loosely knotted tie. Winklepicker boots with silver buckles peeped out from below his drainpipe trousers. Blume was not surprised to see an ankh-shaped earring hanging from his fleshy earlobe. Behind him, Captain Massimiliani was nodding in approval as Blume took all this in his stride.
‘ Lei e il capomissione? Sind Sie Oberbefehl…’ said Blume, holding out his hand and smiling pleasantly.
‘Ah! You speak some German!’ The BKA man suddenly seized Blume’s hand in his own, clasped the other hand over it, and pressed it rather emotionally, as if they were childhood friends now reaching a parting of the ways. ‘But we can speak English. Oberbefehl is a bit of an exaggeration. I am the chief of this mission. I don’t think Massimiliano has explained everything to you?’
‘It’s very simple and — hah! — it is very embarrassing, yeah?’
‘If you say so,’ said Blume, taking a step back.
‘I am embarrassed!’ shouted Weissmann, then lowered his voice, glaring suspiciously at the closed door. ‘We have an agent by the name of Konrad Hoffmann, who has been working in the BKA for fifteen years and has a perfect record. I do not know him personally, although I have met him. For the past five years, this officer has been specializing in inquiries into the management of industrial waste and organized crime. Most of his inquiries have focused on the export and disposal of heavy metals produced by German firms. So far, his investigations have focused on the Camorra and the illegal dumping of toxic waste in the region of Campania. The Camorra is not the only Mafia involved in this sector, but Hoffmann’s inquiries have been focused on that particular organization rather than any other.’
He paused and regarded Blume with an appraising look, as if seeing him for the first time. Blume nodded gravely, which seemed to satisfy him, and he continued. ‘Nine months ago, Konrad Hoffmann made an application for vacation leave, which is his right. In fact, he has not even claimed for as long as he might, and it is absolutely normal for him to ask for time off in the summer, just as it is also perfectly normal for him to take a camper van and drive south into Italy along with thousands of other Germans. So none of this was noticed.’
‘No one noticed a German with a camper van driving to Italy in August?’ said Blume. ‘I understand why this might not make the news.’
The BKA chief found this extremely funny and filled up the room with throaty laughter.
‘That was very humorous. So many Germans with camper vans and motor homes…’ He lowered his voice, ‘Not as bad as the Dutch, though. You can’t move on Italian roads for the Dutch and their yellow number plates and little camper vans! Yeah, so, Konrad Hoffmann. He left on Thursday, spent Friday night in Tyrol, Saturday in Mantua, and last night in the “Tiber Village”. He is on his way from there to us now. You understand this?’
‘I’m following what you are saying,’ said Blume, ‘if that’s what you mean.’
‘You are following me. That is good. I cannot ask for more. Now, as you know the boss of the Dusseldorf colony of the Ndrangheta, Domenico Megale… wait, wait… I have to say this right.’ He cleared his throat. ‘The Italians call him… Megale u Vecchiu. That means “Old Megale”. Did I pronounce it right?’
‘Sounds fine to me,’ said Blume.
‘Did I pronounce it right?’ insisted Weissmann, a note of aggression creeping into his voice.
‘It’s Calabrian. In Italian it would be il vecchio, in Rome we’d say er vecchio.’
The mistrustful glint returned to Weissmann’s eyes. Massimiliani darted an anxious glance at Blume, as if to appeal for his greater understanding, but did not intervene.
‘We will call him by his proper name, Domenico Megale,’ decided Weissmann.
‘Great idea,’ said Blume.
‘So, this Domenico Megale was released from prison after a series of trials and sentences. He is too old to face trial again, but we think he will probably not be boss for long. Maybe already he is not.’
‘I would not presume that,’ said Blume. ‘Italy is a country for old men. Death rather than age, sickness or incarceration stops a boss from being boss, or a prime minister from being prime minister.’
‘Excellent point! Italy is controlled by evil old men: I must remember your observation. We have been watching Megale’s house since his release. It is located between Duisburg and Dusseldorf, in a village called Grossenbaum. We have been noting down the number plates of vehicles, taking photographs of visitors. And one of those visitors was Konrad Hoffmann, who is now in Italy on business we know nothing about. That is the problem.’
‘He is freelancing?’
‘We don’t know. This is what is such an embarrassment. We are very surprised at this. We wanted to see who would turn up at Megale’s house to welcome him back, but we did not expect one of our own agents to go there. He arrived wearing a false moustache and unnecessary glasses. It was the worst effort at disguise anyone on the surveillance team had ever seen, and this is one of the reasons they took a particularly close look at him and circulated the image immediately. I would like to put the photo of Hoffmann in disguise on the BKA intranet so everyone can be amused, except it is a serious matter,’ said Weissmann, then suddenly guffawed. ‘Hoffmann is a person who likes to work on his own as much as possible, and he has done well like this. The logical thing to think was that he was investigating some Eco-Mafia connection between the Ndrangheta and the Camorra. So we sent round an agent last week to his office to have a chat, but discovered he was on leave. We started looking for him, casually, with no big hurry, then it was discovered he had crossed into Italy.’
‘Well, have you asked him?’
‘We contacted him by phone yesterday and asked him if he was enjoying his holiday and where he was. He told us the truth. Perhaps he knew if we were calling we already knew, and were tracking his phone. He’s a BKA agent, after all, and a very good one, but only behind the desk. In the field he is a disaster, as we can see from his attempt at disguise and his failure to notice a stakeout by his own colleagues. I do not think he has many friends in his department. But his record is impressive, as are his qualifications. Yeah, so…’ Weissmann fingered his earring.
‘Did you ask him where he was going?’ prompted Blume.
‘Ah sure, that is what I had forgotten! We asked him where he was going next, and he said he was on holiday and could not be sure. So we, very politely because he is a colleague who has contributed much, insisted that he must tell us. He said then he was going to Campania, which, of course, is an area he knows something about. But,’ Weissmann paused for dramatic effect, ‘what is the connection with Domenico Megale and Calabria? We are still looking through his files, but we see no evidence of a connection between the Camorra and the Ndrangheta in this area.’
‘Your files can’t be much good. The Camorra and Ndrangheta cooperate all the time.’
‘If there is a connection and it involves German firms, which is very plausible, our man has not been sharing information with his superiors or colleagues. It would be useful to know what he is up to. This is where you come in, Commissioner.’
Massimiliani clapped his hands in a businesslike fashion to indicate that they had said enough. He nodded at Weissmann, said ‘thank you’ in English as if they were at a conference, then switched straight into Italian.
‘Winfried likes me to speak Italian now and then so he can practise,’ he said to Blume. He raised his voice, ‘ Tutt’a posto se faccio cosi, Winfried?’
The BKA commander gave the sort of cheery wave like Blume and Massimiliani were two friends visible from a distance but out of earshot.
‘I don’t think he does understand much,’ said Blume, watching the German’s face for signs of comprehension.
‘You’d be surprised, he’s a wily old bastard. He phoned Hoffmann himself this morning, and told him that the Italians needed a favour, and that he and Hoffmann just happened to be in the right place at the right time to do it. He told Hoffmann to come here, saying we Italians, disorganized as always, suddenly need to send an undercover agent down to Campania. Konrad was asked to provide the cover, and of course he could not say no, holiday or no holiday. I don’t imagine he really believes we need him, a German, to infiltrate an Italian into Italy, but Weissmann put him on the spot.’
‘One of those tricky lies that you can’t challenge without revealing that you, too, are lying,’ said Blume.
‘Right. So everyone is pretending that we need to attach an undercover police officer to him for purposes that we would prefer not to talk about. The pretend undercover agent is you, of course.’
‘What’s my cover story?’ asked Blume.
‘You are going to tell him you are investigating toxic dumping, but obviously you can’t say much. That’s why the material I gave you on Friday night should be enough for you to bluff with. You know a bit about the subject now. You tell him that your mission is secret, and that your bosses thought it would be good to have you join him and pretend to be one of two German tourists travelling into Campania, the Amalfi coast.’
‘He won’t believe that if he’s smart.’
‘He wore a false moustache and missed a stakeout by his own colleague so he could visit a Mafia boss just out of jail. It is possible he is not smart at all.’
‘They’ve had three days already to find out what this Hoffmann is up to. He doesn’t sound as if he’s going to fall for my undercover stuff. If he starts asking me about the Camorra, that file you gave me the other night was pretty thin even for bluffing purposes.’
‘I realize that. If at any point you feel that he should simply be stopped, let us know. Bear in mind also that we or his bosses in the BKA might come to the same decision and intervene. But in the meantime, why not see what we can find out? I see this as a perfect opportunity for you to get a feel for what working undercover might be like.’
Blume looked doubtful.
‘The best way to see what Hoffmann is up to is to let him start doing it without letting on. Covertly track where he goes, who he meets. Not assign someone to him.’
‘That’s exactly what the BKA wanted, but we really can’t let that happen. We can’t have a German agent apparently freelancing in a delicate area, just ahead of the Ndrangheta summit, too. Our first idea was just to stop him. Assigning someone to him was a compromise, and we only agreed to that once we were as sure as we could be this was not some sort of set-up.’
‘Good job you trust them, I’d hate to see what distrust looks like.’
‘Use that phone to report to us and keep it on you at all times so we can see where you are.’
Blume turned to the BKA chief and said in English, ‘Your rogue agent will cancel whatever plans he had as soon as I turn up.’
‘ Ich bitte Sie, das ist doch offenkundig! ’ Weissmann muttered something else that Blume failed to catch, then laughed, stood up and, for some reason, gave Massimiliani a blow on the back, presumably intended as a friendly gesture. ‘Sorry, I must speak English.’
Massimiliani had claimed he liked the German commander, but Blume caught a flash of outrage on his face at being thumped so heartily on the back.
‘I just said it was obvious he would have changed his plans,’ explained Weissmann, ‘if his plans are something he means to keep secret, which they may not be. It is also possible that he has something so urgent that he means to do it anyhow, or it is possible that by putting you in his company we are preventing him from doing something. We will continue to examine his files and movements until we find out something.’
‘Why not just follow him discreetly?’ asked Blume. He could see Massimiliani was annoyed he was repeating the question to Weissmann. ‘I mean before now,’ he specified.
‘That is what we have been doing since Friday evening,’ said Weissmann. ‘But we have been monitoring him only at a distance, using his phone and credit card, without the direct involvement of any Italian police. He has been in the Tyrol, like many Germans, but now he is heading south.’
‘You called him,’ said Blume. ‘So now he knows his movements are being observed. Frankly, this does not seem to have been particularly brilliant.’
Weissmann grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. He had a fat silver ring on the base of his thumb and a tiny cobweb tattoo on his palm. ‘It was so dumb, yeah, so dumb.’
But it was not so dumb. To follow a rogue agent in Italy, the BKA either had to launch a large and expensive surveillance operation using their own people, and risk getting caught and losing trust with the Italians, or they had to rely on a team of Italian police doing the surveillance for them on one of their own men, which he could see was not an attractive prospect either. Add to that the fact that Blume and this Hoffmann character seemed to be tilting more or less in the same direction against the same locale in Germany, and were both prepared to use unorthodox and secretive ways to do it, and they seemed made for one another. Blume also realized, with a flush of shame, that he and the German must also appear as two fools on an errand. Hoffmann’s disguise had been penetrated at once, Blume’s forging of Maria Itria’s transcript was discovered within hours.
Weissmann gave him a friendly nod and, for good measure, another thumbs-up.
‘Babysit him and talk to him,’ continued Massimiliani in Italian. ‘Try to find out whatever you can while we and the BKA try to find out about this new connection between Domenico Megale and the Camorra.’
Weissmann came up and extended his hand, but vertically, like he wanted either to high-five or do one of those hand-grab, shoulder-bump, buddy-buddy moves that young people seemed to favour.
Blume chose to ignore it. Weissmann dropped his hand by his side, smiled understandingly, then aimed a left-handed punch at Blume’s bicep.
‘I appreciate this, Commissioner. You will do good work.’
Blume left the room, rubbing his arm.
A dip in the terrain outside the perimeter fence of the DCSA compound gave the illusion that the area towards which they were headed was contiguous with the car park surrounding the IKEA emporium about half a kilometre away.
They left the air-conditioned building, and Blume thought the heat outside was not as bad as he had feared, but a few paces and the soaking sensation on his back reminded him that Roman heat was cumulative as well as humid. The no-man’s land that separated them from IKEA was filled with yellowing fennel, run to seed, which clogged the air with a scent of hay and aniseed that threatened to make him sneeze. As he kept up with Massimiliani, who walked at a quick pace, he caught flickering glimpses through the railings of broken ancient Roman brickwork and low mounds, beneath which lay tombs emptied of their treasures.
‘You were meant to hand in your phone, Blume.’
‘What’s this thing about my phone?’
‘It’s standard undercover procedure. You get a phone full of innocuous-looking numbers, nothing that connects back, nothing that can compromise.’
‘I see,’ said Blume. ‘Except I’m not going properly undercover, am I?’
‘Am I?’ said Blume.
‘No,’ said Massimiliani finally. ‘We considered it. We even set in process a procedure to get you some different ID… but you’ve never been trained. A three-day course will do at a pinch… Just try to sell Hoffmann the idea you are working undercover and have more to hide than him.’
‘Great! There it is: that camper van parked under the pink mimosa.’
‘There is no such thing as a pink mimosa,’ said Blume. ‘That’s a Persian silk tree.’
‘That’s its proper name,’ said Blume. He pointed to the vehicle underneath the tree. ‘Look at the state of that piece of junk. Thirty years old if it’s a day. It’s hard to tell how much of that brown and orange is design from the ’70s or whenever, and how much is rust. I’d be surprised to see it move.’
‘It’s a Fiat Hymer,’ said Massimiliani.
‘Where’s the car we’re using?’ said Blume. ‘You guys have a load of great cars confiscated in asset seizures. If I could choose…’
‘I’m sorry, I thought you understood. You’re going with him in the van. It helps to hide your identity and his. A camper van is just the sort of thing a pair of German tourists would use. Two men in a saloon car: police; two men in an camper van…’
‘Queer,’ said Blume.
Massimiliani nodded sympathetically. ‘I can see how you might think that,’ he said. ‘But think of it as an advantage in undercover terms. I don’t expect you to sleep in there with him. I’ve made some bookings in a nice place, a hotel in Positano,’ said Massimiliani. ‘Separate rooms,’ he added.
‘Jesus,’ said Blume. ‘Also, is it normal for people with camper vans to use hotels?’
‘Probably not, but I figured you might not want to go along with what Hoffmann professes was his original plan, which was a campsite in Salerno.’
‘I’ve never been inside a camper van,’ said Blume. ‘You?’
‘Dear God, no,’ said Massimiliani.
Despite its age, the motor home had evidently been well looked after. ‘No one in the cockpit or whatever the front bit is called,’ said Blume. ‘But the engine’s running. What’s that about?’
‘He must be in the back,’ said Massimiliani. ‘I suppose the engine is for the air-conditioning.’ He knocked on the side of the van, and the door swung open.
The man who stepped out was painfully thin, remarkably tall and, worst of all, bare-chested, apparently feeling unselfconscious about his cream-white skin and the wispy strawberry-coloured hairs that branched out beneath his nipples. His hair was fiery red, and his arms, neck, throat and face were covered in long brown freckles. He was barefoot, and as he touched the hot ground, he winced, showing teeth that seemed glassy and translucent, and were surrounded by an excess of gum.
‘You are the man whom I must accompany?’ asked the German in English.
‘That’s me. Commissioner Blume, Alec Blume.’ He reluctantly held out his hand, expecting the German’s hand to be sweaty, but it was perfectly dry and the handshake seemed normal enough: as robust and unenthusiastic as his own.
‘Konrad Hoffmann. We can go now. I have been waiting too long already.’
The German’s English pronunciation was almost perfect, slightly American even.
Blume turned to Massimiliani and, speaking Italian, said, ‘I get into this freakmobile from the ’70s and we drive down to Positano. That’s it?’
Instead of answering him, Massimiliani turned to the German who, thankfully, had retired to fetch a white T-shirt and was pulling it over his head. He stood there watching them for a while, then climbed into the cab, pointedly slammed shut the door, and sat in the driver’s seat gunning the motor.
‘Oh,’ said Massimiliani. ‘Almost forgot…’ He pulled an envelope from his inside pocket and handed it to Blume. ‘Cash. That’s to pay the hotel and expenses. You can sign for it when you get back.’
‘I didn’t bring an overnight bag,’ said Blume.
‘Did I not mention you would need one?’
‘You didn’t even mention the journey.’
‘Sorry. We only decided on our tactics definitely this morning, while you were in the conference room.’
‘But the idea was there since Friday?’ said Blume.
‘Yes,’ said Massimiliani. ‘I am so used to working on a need-to-know basis…’
‘That you can’t even tell someone to bring a change of clothes?’
‘That’s one of the reasons I gave you that money.’
‘Underpants money. Great.’
The camper van gave a blast of its horn.
‘See?’ said Massimiliani. ‘Leave a German in the sun for a bit and he turns into an Italian. I bet he never hit his horn outside a police headquarters in Dusseldorf. He’s not going out of that gate without my clearance or without you. By the way, I’ve had your car sent back to your station at Collegio Romano.’
‘How thoughtful of you,’ said Blume. ‘At least promise me that if you find out anything useful about this guy and why he went to visit Megale, you’ll let me know.’
‘We’ll keep you informed, you keep us informed. Enjoy your trip.’
Blume climbed into the camper van beside the German who had had the decency also to put on a pair of white trainers. As soon as he was in, the security gate started to roll slowly open.
‘This is a farce,’ said Konrad, revving the engine in a threatening manner, but then driving out of the gate with exceeding care.
‘I agree,’ said Blume.
‘I want you to know that this camper van was built in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. I bought it second-hand in 1990.’
‘World Cup year. You guys won. Unless you’re East German. Did you buy it to come down here to see the matches?’
‘That was one reason.’
Blume reflected for a moment. ‘Why do you think I care when this camper was made?’
‘You said it was from the 1970s.’
‘You mean when I was talking to Captain Massimiliani. True, I did say that. It was for rhetorical effect. I also remember saying it in Italian. So this is your way of telling me you understand Italian and I had better watch my mouth?’
Hoffmann turned to look at him. The bright sun through the dirty windscreen illuminated the tips of his pale eyelashes in a way that made Blume think of insect wings.
‘My spoken Italian is good even though it is not a useful language to speak. My comprehension is perfect. For your sake I have decided we can use English.’ Hoffmann signalled right. The camper wobbled and squeaked as he moved into the next lane.
‘For my sake?’
‘You are American-born, I am informed.’
‘Who told you this?’
‘His name is Weissmann.’
‘Yes, I met him.’
‘He is not my commander. He is from Abteilung IK. International Coordination. That is not my department, so he is not my boss.’
‘Is he your superior officer?’
‘Well, then,’ said Blume. Hoffmann started to reply, but Blume interrupted: ‘No, don’t take this exit.’
‘I was told I could continue with my trip as planned, now you are telling me I cannot?’
‘I want you to stop by my house first. It won’t take too long,’ said Blume. ‘It’s nearby. I have a suitcase packed and waiting by the door. It’ll take me three minutes once we’re there.’
‘ Unter der Bedingung dass, ich bereit zu warten bin.’
‘Of course you’ll wait for me, Hoffmann. I trust you.’
‘You understand German?’
‘I worked in a BMW factory in Munich in my youth. Every summer, almost all summer, for five years. It got me through college. I don’t speak it well, but that’s fine. It is not a useful language.’
Blume grabbed an empty backpack, then opened his wardrobe only to find almost no clothes there. He was three or four washing loads behind. The only viable clothes, along with his favourite possessions, were locked in the cream-coloured hard-shelled suitcase which dated from the days before someone had thought to attach wheels to luggage. It was even older than Hoffmann’s camper van. He grabbed some socks and underwear and stuffed them into the backpack, then, willing blood and power into his biceps, finally lifted the suitcase and carried it out of the apartment. He had imagined this action several times in his mind, thinking that once the suitcase passed the threshold he would have made an irrevocable decision to move out of his apartment and in with Caterina. He was relieved to discover that it was not so.
He dragged the suitcase across the courtyard and out the front gate, making sure his arm and not his back was taking the enormous strain. As he made his way down the street towards the camper van, his phone started ringing, and he cursed volubly, to hide his relief at having an excuse to drop the weight and answer. But when he saw Caterina’s name on the display, his relief turned to anxiety. He hit the hang-up key with his thumb and carried the suitcase the rest of the way. Hoffmann left the cab, opened the side door, and stood inside waiting to receive the suitcase.
‘Thanks,’ said Blume. He counted a one-two in his head and one-two out loud as he swung it up, anticipating the pleasure of the sudden release of the weight. Hoffmann caught it with excessive nonchalance and staggered backwards, looking gratifyingly shocked at the weight of the thing.
‘How long do you think we are going to be travelling for?’ asked Hoffmann.
‘I packed it for a different reason,’ said Blume. He did not feel like adding any more but if he was supposed to find out as much as he could about Hoffmann, he needed to make an effort to seem friendly. ‘It’s been there for some time. I’m supposed to be moving in with my girlfriend.’
‘Girlfriend. Ah. That’s good. Have you been with her for long?’
‘A while,’ said Blume. ‘She’s a colleague.’
‘Super. So you see each other all the time.’ Konrad stepped out and closed the camper door, then locked it.
‘Yes. Being always in contact with her is…’ His phone rang again.
‘You can answer that,’ said Hoffmann. Blume glanced at it, saw Caterina’s name, and cut it off. ‘It’s stopped. Look, can I just check something in my case before we go?’
‘Inside the camper?’ Hoffmann’s blue eyes widened in exaggerated surprise.
Reluctantly, he unlocked the door and Blume stepped inside. He noted two matching soft leather suitcases nestling against each other in the back, and beside them, his own oversized and antiquated cream one. The interior was furnished with plastic wood and the metal edges with fake wood-grain siding, which suddenly disinterred a buried memory of a Buick station wagon someone’s mother used to drive. He remembered sitting in the back, his bare legs stuck to the vinyl bench seats, as the car, an enormous thing, glided down the freeway like a fat boat on a muddy river. In Europe, you could always feel the rumble of the wheels. You were always aware of the surface of the road.
Stuck to the fake wood-board above the curtain that separated the living area from the front cab was a photo of a young woman. To judge from the pale-blue tint that had washed away most of the bright colours, it was at least fifteen years old. The girl was blonde, smiling, and possibly pretty, but the flat colour and absence of shadow made it hard to form a clear idea of what she was like. She was standing in front of a camper van, which, Blume guessed, was the one he was standing in.
He felt Hoffmann’s eyes on his back and realized he had been under observation. What with the careful positioning of the photo in the dead centre of the small living space, above a stiff divider curtain that reminded him of a tabernacle. Blume stretched out his hand as if to touch it.
‘Don’t touch that!’
He turned around, making a show of being surprised to find Hoffmann there. ‘Touch what? Oh, you mean the photo. Who is she?’
‘An old friend.’
‘You mean a young friend,’ said Blume. ‘But I guess you were just as young when this was taken.’
Hoffmann tapped a clear plastic watch on his wrist. ‘Thanks to you we will be driving in the hottest hours of the day.’
‘It’s only two and a half hours to Naples, maybe a bit more in this thing. And from Naples to Positano another hour.’
Blume sat down in the passenger seat beside Hoffmann and, in a second effort to come across as friendly and helpful, began to explain the best way to get from Via Orvieto to the A1. ‘Basically, back the way we’ve just come. Straight on till Cinecitta, then we need to go..’
Hoffmann pulled out a SatNav from the glove compartment beside him and stuck it to a suction mount on the windscreen.
Blume folded his arms and lapsed into offended silence.
As they left the city limits Hoffmann accelerated and the camper van responded with a soft lurching movement as if its suspension was made from marshmallows. It was showing an alarming tendency to yaw as well as pitch and roll as Konrad, like any northern European driver dealing with Italians, found his efforts to set an example of careful driving being undermined by his own paroxysms of rage, resulting in much braking and accelerating.
‘Take it easy, Hoffmann.’
‘My name is Konrad.’
‘What about you?’
‘You can call me Alec, if you feel you have to.’
‘OK, Alec. Why have you been assigned to ruin my holiday?’
Blume considered his response.
‘I am here because I’ve been told to keep an eye on you, and find out what you’re up to. So maybe if you just tell me, I can get out, get a taxi back, and return in triumph with a complete report.’
Konrad pointed at a fast-moving swarm of vehicles ahead. ‘In Germany, we would never have vehicles come on the road before vehicles go off.’
‘I have no idea what you are talking about,’ said Blume.
‘This is what I mean.’ Konrad pointed out the window. ‘Those cars are coming on to the road from the right and must come into the flow of the traffic. That is the entrance, no? And here, fifty metres farther on, we have the exit. So all the cars that want to go off must cross at high speed in front of all the cars that are coming on. This is very bad engineering.’
‘Our apologies,’ said Blume.
Ten minutes later, Konrad pointed to the side of the road. ‘Do you notice that?’
Blume checked. The road signs seemed normal, the hilly land behind the guardrail was so dry it looked like a collection of sand dunes. One sign told him the next Agip service area was fifteen kilometres. No cars were coming on or going off the highway in an unGerman manner. ‘Notice what?’
‘Evidently you don’t.’
‘Is this some sort of German version of I-spy?’
‘ Ich seh’ etwas, was du nicht siehst. Yes.’
‘Konrad, I have a headache and a loaded gun. Please tell me what you are talking about.’
‘I am talking about the rubbish. It is constant in Italy. There has been an unbroken line of rubbish along the road from your house to here. I was just wondering if after some time you stop noticing.’
‘Sometimes I notice,’ said Blume.
‘Italy is like Africa in this respect. Have you ever been to Africa?’
‘Does Morocco count?’ said Blume.
‘Technically yes, but not Arab Africa. Below. I was in Conakry for a week. They have the same problem as you. Plastic refuse everywhere. It’s a sign of a failed state.’
‘It gets tidier as you move north in Italy,’ said Blume. ‘By the time you get to Germany, everything is perfect.’
‘Have you read Jeremy Bentham?’
‘Can’t say I have,’ said Blume.
‘He founded utilitarianism — but he copied Kant, of course. As a utilitarian, I say there is an argument to be made for inflicting the death penalty on someone who throws rubbish on the street or defaces a public building.’
Blume was trying to read his companion’s face. Right now, Konrad’s mouth was showing an excess of gum, which possibly meant he was smiling.
But as Blume began forming a complicit grin, Konrad closed his mouth into a tight line and straightened his face. ‘It is a serious point. Take a landscape that has been ruined as completely as this. We can calculate it on the felific index. First, you must add up all the distress of the hundreds of thousands of people who pass through it, the sense of disgust and depression, as well as the anger, frustration and what I must imagine is self-hatred and justifiable sense of inferiority among many Italians. If you total the negative emotions, and keep in mind that these are feelings people experience over and over, every day, as they drive or walk by all these ruined sites, then you can say that the sum of human harm done must exceed the harm done by a single murder, or even multiple murders.’
‘Throwing an ice-cream wrapper equals mass murder… You’re not Catholic, are you?’
‘I am atheist,’ said Konrad.
For the next forty minutes they continued in silence. The road was clear and they were making good progress.
Eventually Konrad said, ‘Do you like music?’
‘That definitely depends,’ said Blume warily. He had heard German death metal, Bavarian brass bands and the alienated electronic squawks of experimental stuff from Berlin. He looked at the flaking silver buttons on the car stereo.
Konrad followed his glance. ‘I was not saying I would play music, I just wanted to know if you liked it.’
‘Yes, I do,’ said Blume.
‘I like lieder by Schumann, Schubert, Wolf and Mahler. I know the entire Winterreise. Do you know it?’ Konrad unexpectedly took an exit from the autostrada.
‘No. Where are we going? We should have stayed on the autostrada.’
‘Schubert’s most famous song cycle? I learned it many years ago, and I can play the piano accompaniment, too. They say I have a very fine singing voice.’
‘Do they? Why are we taking this exit?’
‘It is my holiday, no?’ Konrad rolled to a stop at the toll gate, and slotted a credit card into the machine. The machine sucked it in, thought about it a bit, then spat it out and flashed a message.
Konrad tried again, without any better luck.
‘Use mine,’ said Blume. ‘I’ve got fastpay on it.’
‘That is very kind.’
The machine deducted another 14 euros from Blume’s disastrous bank account and the barrier lifted. As Konrad handed back the card, Blume’s phone, his ‘proper’ one as he now thought of it, started ringing.
‘Caterina! I was just about to call you.’
‘Are you avoiding me?’
‘No. I’ve been busy. I couldn’t take calls. Has anyone been on to you about me?’
‘Nobody has contacted me.’
‘Someone from the DCSA or the Questura should. Basically, to explain that I’m going away for a few days — ’
‘At the moment, we’re just entering Campania. But I’m not sure if I am supposed to tell you even that. I’m sure I can talk about it later.’
‘You said “we”. Who else is there?’
‘Another policeman. A sort of policeman. Really, I’m not going to say more.’
‘How many days?’
‘I don’t know. Two, three. Caterina, stop asking questions.’
‘Fine. But you…’ Her voice became a metallic stutter as they passed an area of poor reception, but Blume did not ask her to repeat whatever she had said. It sounded like a reprimand of some sort, or maybe it was the robotic quality of her voice.
‘This is not a good line,’ he said.
‘I can hear you perfectly well. Why aren’t you calling me?’
‘Stuff, you know. Unexpectedly busy, I’m calling you now.’
‘No, I called you.’
‘Yeah, well we’re both holding a phone and talking, so my basic point still stands.’
‘If holding the phone is tiring you…’
‘No, no. Of course not.’
His new phone vibrated and chimed cutely in his pocket. Having two phones was going to be as stressful as having a watch. The display showed a message: ‘Text from Mamma.’
He jabbed at the icon, but the touch screen had evidently been designed for some future elfin race with tapered fingers and a steady aim. Even giving it his full attention, he could not manage to tap the animated envelope on whatever magic spot might reveal the text they had sent him. He pulled out a pen and struck at it in vain. He slapped the phone several times against the top of the dashboard, which drew a disapproving scowl from Konrad who was now hurtling down a secondary road at full speed like he knew where he was going and someone’s life depended on it.
‘Alec?’ said Caterina.
‘Yes,’ said Blume, throwing his new phone on the floor in front of him. ‘I’m still here.’
‘I have to go up to Milan in a few days. Magistrate Bazza, the one who took over the case then decided not to tell me anything? I don’t much like the sound of this magistrate.’
‘No?’ said Blume. ‘Why not?’
‘I just said: he held back information from me when I was investigating.’
‘That’s normal enough, Caterina.’
‘I know, but a good magistrate holds back for strategic reasons. The point is to trip up the suspects, not the investigators.’
‘Maybe you’re being too sensitive.’
‘Too emotional and female, you mean?’
‘That’s not what I meant at all, but now that you mention it.. ’
‘A good magistrate’s interest in a case is always based on a desire to know what might be useful. That’s what Arconti was like, wasn’t it?’
‘I guess,’ said Blume.
‘From what I’ve seen, this Milan magistrate is interested in this case because he likes to know things that others don’t.’
Blume was about to advise her to be careful dealing with the magistrate in Milan, if only for the sake of her career prospects, but Konrad decided to roll down his window and fill the cab with thunderous warm wind, and then started singing.
‘ Soll denn kein Angedenken
Ich nehmen mit von hier? ’
‘Just keep doing what you’re doing!’ Blume roared into the mouthpiece and pressed his phone harder against his ear.
‘It’s noisy where I am!’ he explained, motioning at Konrad to roll up the window and shut up. Konrad ignored him. Blume cupped both hands over the earpiece.
‘Alec, you would tell me, wouldn’t you, if your journey was connected to the Arconti case?’
‘No you wouldn’t tell me, or…’
‘ Wenn meine Schmerzen schweigen,
Wer sagt mir dann von ihr? ’
Blume put the phone down. ‘For Christ’s sake, Konrad!’ He brought it back to his ear. ‘Listen, let’s not mix things up, Caterina. I’ll call you back soon.’ He hung up abruptly.
Konrad stopped singing. Blume couldn’t decide whether he had been serious or was engaging in some sort of exercise in humour that only Germans appreciated. Konrad’s tenor voice had, in fact, been quite good.
The real problem was Konrad’s driving. He was bouncing in his seat and swinging the steering wheel left and right like a five-year-old pretending to steer as he swerved around the potholes and sought to avoid the bumps in the road. The sunlight was lighting up his fiery hair and streaming directly into his face so that there was no way he could possibly see where he was going.
‘That was not the right exit for Positano, or Naples, or even Salerno,’ shouted Blume above the rushing air.
‘I am perfectly aware of where I am going,’ said Konrad, his tone now scornful. He swerved around one pothole but hit a second, larger one, almost bouncing Blume into his lap.
Blume steadied himself. ‘Oh yeah, and where might that be?’
‘To the gates of hell,’ shouted Konrad, facetious as ever.
Near Pozzuoli, Naples
‘We could get a bite to eat at that osteria,’ suggested Blume.
Konrad continued driving.
‘I’m hungry,’ said Blume. ‘It’s past two. We’re going to miss lunch if we don’t stop. If I skip a meal, first I get a blinding headache, then I start killing Germans. Seriously, I need to eat. It’s a blood-sugar thing.’
‘You are a diabetic,’ said Konrad. It did not sound like a question; it sounded more like a reprimand. ‘That osteria is abandoned. You can see it has not been painted or restored in fifty years. I did a course in urban tracking in 2002. We were taught to see things at a glance. The trick is to see the whole thing and the details, and keep moving, while you consider the implications of what you have captured in the first glance.’
The camper van dipped and its suspension groaned as Konrad drove them through a series of potholes and over a lattice of tree roots that had burst out of the tarmac.
‘So you’ll have noticed the five cars and the van parked outside it?’ said Blume, when the rocking had stopped.
‘Yes, of course I saw them.’
‘So, Konrad, it is not abandoned. It is still serving lunch.’
Konrad slowed down. ‘My point is that eating at this time of the day is bad for clear thinking.’
‘OK. Forget it. You’re obviously in a hurry to get to… where is it you want to get to?’
‘Lake Avernus,’ said Konrad. ‘But now I am looking for a place to turn, so that we can go back.’
‘To the abandoned osteria?’
‘I now recognize that it is not abandoned. I was not focused at the time. Now it is all clear in my mind’s eye.’
The osteria served food directly to the table without any menu. Two bottles of water, a jug of wine and a basket of bread sat between them. Walking quickly by, the waiter placed two dishes of caprese in front of them. Konrad tried to say something in Italian to the waiter, who listened patiently, an expression of pity verging on concern in his eyes. When Konrad had finished his incomprehensible sentence, the waiter gave him an encouraging smile and moved away to deal with normal people.
Blume quartered his mozzarella, speared a tomato slice and, with the help of a piece of bread, pushed the mozzarella on to his fork. It was sweet and creamy.
‘My speaking skills are rusty,’ said Konrad.
‘Corroded, I’d say,’ said Blume. ‘I didn’t understand a word.’
‘ Non e che io non sappia parlare italiano, sai? ’ said Konrad.
‘Now I understand you fine,’ said Blume. ‘How come you didn’t speak like that to the waiter?’
‘I was speaking Campanian dialect.’
This time, there seemed to be no humorous undertow in Konrad’s demeanour. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Of course. Perhaps the waiter isn’t from these parts.’
‘Apart from the fact you were entirely incomprehensible…’ Blume replayed Konrad’s phrases in his mind and began to laugh. ‘Dialect… with that accent. You should be on Zelig.’
‘What is this Zelig?’
‘A TV show for stand-ups.’ Blume tried to suppress his laughter. The trick was not to think of… No, it was no good.
Three minutes later, drying his eyes with the back of his hand, Blume said, ‘No foreigner can ever speak dialect. You might pick up some of the accent if you stayed here long enough, but you can’t speak dialect.’ He looked at Konrad’s plate. ‘You haven’t touched your caprese. Why are you not eating that mozzarella di bufala? That is local produce, and this is the best area in the country for mozzarella.’
‘I am not sure I like it. I would have preferred to choose from the menu.’
Blume stripped a crust off a piece of bread and crunched it between his teeth. ‘No menu here.’ He pressed the flat of his knife on the mozzarella, bleeding milk across his plate.
The waiter came back, stared wordlessly at Konrad, then removed his mozzarella and tomato. The next course was homemade pasta and San Marzano tomato sauce with plenty of basil.
Once again, Konrad sat immobile, ignoring his food.
‘No wonder you’re thin,’ said Blume. ‘What’s wrong that you’re not eating your pasta?’
‘I must not be hungry.’
‘Then leave the fucking bread alone.’
Konrad took his hand out of the bread basket and tucked it guiltily under the table.
‘That’s better,’ said Blume. ‘Now eat up. And let’s get some business out of the way.’
‘Your colleagues saw you in the company of an Ndrangheta boss. Domenico Megale, to be precise.’
Konrad looked so utterly shocked that Blume burst out laughing. ‘I can’t quite work out when you’re trying to be funny, but there’s no mistaking when you’re shocked. It seems you wore a disguise so bad they want to use it as a sort of reverse example.’
‘As soon as Weissmann called me, I realized there was a good chance they had seen me.’
‘Why the look of shock, then?’
‘I am only very surprised they should have told you this. After all, who are you?’
‘Don’t try to turn the questioning around.’
‘Are you particularly expert?’
‘No,’ said Blume.
‘Then you must have a direct interest in this. What is the link between you and Megale?’
‘The questions are still flowing in the wrong direction, Konrad. I have already levelled with you. Time to reciprocate. Give me something I can put in a report.’
‘I am observant,’ said Konrad. ‘I saw immediately that you have no ring on your finger, but you have a girlfriend.’
‘She is above all a colleague,’ said Blume.
‘Tell me about your relationship with this woman.’
Konrad blinked a few times as if he was trying to compute something. His long nose, pointed chin and sad mouth gave him the appearance of a mistreated horse. Eventually, the cogs of his logic stopped whirring and he delivered his finding. ‘If there is a woman in your life, then you must be happy,’ he told Blume. ‘But you are running away from her.’
The suddenly personal turn in the conversation disconcerted Blume. The least he could do was regain his function as the person asking the questions. ‘Do you have a girl?’
It was unlikely, surely, but women were strange. Sometimes they became overwhelmed with such intense feelings of pity for spectacularly ugly men that they ended up marrying them.
‘Not any more,’ said Konrad. ‘Not for a long time.’
‘That can be good. It gives you time to concentrate on your work,’ said Blume. He did not believe this for a moment. All the extra hours made available by not being in a relationship were filled obsessing on what was so wrong with you that women could not bear to be near you. Then as soon as you found someone, you began to long for the solitude you thought you hated.
Blume steered the conversation back towards pertinent issues. ‘Have you found some connection between the Camorra and the Ndrangheta? Is that what this is about? They both specialize in poisoning the earth, which is your area of expertise, right?’
‘It is one of my areas of expertise,’ said Konrad. ‘I have been engaged in a long investigation into toxic dumping, and that involved the Camorra, of course. The investigation is now over, prosecutions have been made. I am an acknowledged authority by now. There is talk of me writing the preface to Saviano’s next book. As an expert in Italian crime, I obviously know a good deal about the Ndrangheta, but I have no evidence of a direct connection between the organizations.’
‘What about the visit to Megale’s house?’
‘Did they see me leaving or entering?’
Blume racked his brain. He couldn’t remember what he had been told. ‘Both, I imagine.’
‘But you don’t know. I will admit that I have been privately studying the Ndrangheta a little, and maybe talking with an exponent of that organization.’
‘Well, that’s a start,’ said Blume.
‘I am very surprised at what I have found.’
‘And what is that?’
‘It is a very effective and quiet organization and extremely efficient. I thought Italians could never be that organized.’
‘That’s because you’ve been dealing with the Camorra. They are chaotic,’ said Blume. ‘With 100,000 men they can’t control Naples, but with around 30,000 the Ndrangheta controls Europe, Australia and fifteen African states as well as Central and South America, and has a turnover about the same as the GDP of Slovakia, or Slovenia… or Serbia. I can never remember which.’
‘The obvious conclusion is that Italians are organized only in crime,’ said Konrad. ‘I think that is undeniable.’
‘That sort of facile conclusion is why you Germans are so useless as investigators,’ said Blume. ‘The Ndrangheta has taken over East Germany better than the Soviets ever did. They own all the seafront houses in the Baltic, they control half the municipalities in the Ruhr valley and all the drug money in all your cities except for Berlin where they allow the Moroccans to sell hashish, on a franchise basis. They import metals for your industries, take out the waste, and clean the money. They mediate between the Russians and your industries, and they help capitalize your banks. They know how to wait, to accept sacrifice, to tough it out, to hide wealth, to remain mute, help each other, bide their time. They can do that better than any German criminals, and they can do it better than your politicians and businessmen. They own you.’
‘You sound almost proud of what they do.’
‘Italians are better at self-sacrifice, discipline and savings than anyone else in Europe and, above all, they — we — are extremely organized. The problem is that we divide into units that are too small. We organize into families instead of neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods instead of towns, towns instead of provinces, provinces instead of regions, and regions instead of a country. The same goes for our industries. They’re always too small. We have the same problem in the police. Basically, we should have just one force. But we are an organized people. Just look at an Italian travelling. Neat, clean, everything planned, budgeted. The northern Europeans are chaotic, dirty, dishevelled, lost, drunk, loutish… As for your police and their efforts to stop drug smuggling, words fail me. Eat your lunch, what’s the matter with you: are you some sort of fucking anorexic?’
‘Dioxins,’ said Konrad.
‘This food. It is probably all poisoned. We are in Campania. I know about this region. People burn rubbish in the streets and fill the air with dioxins from burning plastics. The Camorra has filled the land with heavy metals and maybe even nuclear materials. You keep telling me the food was produced locally. But I don’t want to eat produce grown from the toxic soils of Campania. These are filthy people, ein Dreckvolk, and I do not want their food.’
‘You ate the bread.’
A gratifying look of panic crossed across Konrad’s face.
The waiter, who had taken back Konrad’s untouched plates one after the other, now came over to find out what was going on.
‘ Non si sente bene,’ Blume explained. ‘ No, figurati, il cibo era ottimo. Poi, e un tedesco, quindi non capisce un cazzo ne della buona cucina, ne delle buone maniere. ’
Konrad had pulled out a notebook and was writing something down. In the middle of all Konrad’s extravagantly curly hair was a great bald patch where the freckles looked like liver spots. From above, Konrad looked like an old man, and this pleased Blume immensely.
Konrad paused in his writing for a moment to look up and smile at Blume, saying, quite mildly, ‘You forget I understand when you speak Italian and insult me to the waiter.’
‘I didn’t forget. I just wanted to make sure the waiter understood. What are you writing?’
‘Some of what you said is interesting. I am making a note. One of the reasons I am good at my job is I am willing to learn.’ Konrad put away his pen and notebook.
‘Konrad, just tell me why you visited that Ndrangheta boss. Personally, I don’t give a damn. In fact, if it leads to your imprisonment or death, that’s fine by me. It’s between you and your superiors. I just need something to take back so it looks like I did some work here. You get that, don’t you?’
‘You are so full of suspicions but do you… do you know anything about me, Commissioner?’
‘I am rapidly forming some ideas.’
‘Years ago I was on my way to becoming a professor or an archaeologist,’ said Konrad, ‘but I switched universities and became a federal policeman instead.’ He downed a glass of wine, then cleared his throat. ‘My Latin and Greek are excellent,’ he continued. ‘My Latin professor once asked me to explain my method for learning vocabulary so fast, so that he might teach it to his other students.’ He paused and peered at Blume, then shook his head sadly. ‘I don’t think you have the right sort of mind for my technique. You lack patience and humility, as well as a classical background, of course.’
‘You’re making me feel really small.’
‘But I think even you may know that Ndrangheta is a Greek word, it comes from andrangathos, which means “courageous man”.’
‘Are you absolutely sure about that?’ said Blume. ‘You’re convinced you are not talking bullshit?’
‘Of course I am sure. Calabria was part of Magna Graecia and ancient Greek words are still spoken there.’
‘So you’re telling me Ndrangheta is an ancient name?’ asked Blume.
‘Yes. I am assuming you have not studied these things. Obviously, you have no knowledge of ancient Greek.’
‘Italian kids still do Greek and Latin, at least if they go to a Liceo Classico, which I did. There’s nothing ancient Greek about those Calabrian thugs. Don’t believe anything they say. Even their name is a lie. The organization you have placed back in the mists of time basically came into being in 1975. So, once again, you have understood nothing.’
‘I hate to correct you…’
‘Then don’t. It’s all made up. There’s no ancient custom. When I was a student, the name was hardly even used. It doesn’t date back much further than the War — you know, the one you guys started and lost.’
‘Italy lost first,’ said Konrad.
‘Italy was misrepresented by its leaders, and changed sides. And I was speaking as an American there.’
‘I have studied the rites of the Ndrangheta. Some of them are based on ancient custom.’
‘It’s all bullshit,’ said Blume. ‘All those rites are taken from the Freemasons, another bunch of bullshit artists. This Ndrangheta mythology was basically invented yesterday. Like I said, until the 1980s they were just called the Calabrian Mafia. For a while it was called the Maffia, with two “ f ’’s; before that, people just called them the Camorra, or bandits.’
‘So they do go back in time.’
‘Sure they go back in time,’ said Blume. ‘Everything and everyone goes back in time. We all come from somewhere.’
Robertino awoke as his mother was making lunch, and, noting she was not within touching distance, began to make his displeasure known through a mixture of griping and straining efforts to escape from the trap of his baby bouncer.
His mother seemed to be more stressed than usual by his antics, and sensing this, the child raised the stakes, adding cries to his grunting efforts to break free.
‘Please, not now. Ruggiero!’ she called. ‘Come in here! Pick up your brother. Keep him quiet for ten minutes, would you?’
Despite arching his back and going red from the strain of trying to break out of his bouncer, it turned out the last thing in the world Robertino wanted was to be removed from it, at least not by his brother. Griping became screaming.
‘Shut that child up!’ shouted his mother. ‘Get him out of here.’
‘But he’s hungry,’ protested Ruggiero.
‘What the hell do you think I am doing, standing at this stove for the fun of it?’
Ruggiero eventually found a game that Robertino liked, which consisted of singing pee-poh-pah-dah on a sliding scale and touching him on the forehead, nose, chin and tummy, over and over and over again. By the time lunch was ready, the infant had dissolved into peals of laughter, which quickly became infectious and lifted the mood.
As she finished spoon-feeding Robertino a pap made out of meat stock and semolina, his mother said, ‘Your father will be here in a few days. He can’t say when. He’ll sort things out, if anything needs sorting out, of course.’
‘Because something is going on. Yesterday Zia Rosa was in a panic about Enrico not coming home. I tried not to let her infect me with her fear, but I was worried, too.’
When Ruggiero had arrived home the evening before, this mother had been studiously casual about his temporary disappearance. He had been at once hurt by her indifference and proud of her strength.
‘It was bad for Enrico. Not me.’
‘Was it?’ His mother was fond enough of Enrico, though she tended to use him as a yardstick with which to measure the superiority of her own son.
‘Who else was there?’ asked his mother.
‘Pepe, Luca, Giovanni and Rocco.’
‘What did they tell you?’
‘Nothing, Mamma. It was all about football.’
‘You say they treated you well and Enrico poorly? Who is “they”?’
‘The others. My friends,’ said Ruggiero.
‘Friends,’ she said contemptuously. ‘The only friend you should trust is an ex-enemy, because then you have the measure of him. What was said?’
‘Nothing was said.’
‘Did you feel isolated?’
‘A little. But that’s just part of being a Curmaci, isn’t it?’
His mother spooned up semolina from Robertino’s chin and deftly dropped it into his mouth. Robertino made slow fish-like movements with his mouth, still tasting the semolina broth, interested in, but wary of, the flavour. ‘One day, you’re at the market buying some fresh spinach, and you see someone you sort of know, and you suddenly realize he is standing on his own in the middle of the crowd. The flow of people past him divides too early to avoid him, as if he were a large obstacle rather than a single person.’
‘Who are we talking about, Mamma?’
‘Someone you never knew. But it could be anyone. Then as you watch him, you realize no one has mentioned his name in weeks. Then, one day he’s gone, and you are not surprised. Either his body is found in Filadelfia with no face left on it after a shotgun blast, or he disappears from the face of the earth. You wonder why he didn’t see it coming, but the answer is that he did. But he could not think what to do, and could not imagine leaving.’
‘Papa is not like that.’
‘Of course not. He’s far stronger.’
‘I don’t think I’d be like that either,’ said Ruggiero. ‘I’d fight rather than wait like a lamb for the slaughter.’
‘If you couldn’t fight, what then?’
‘Would I run?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘My last phone call with your father was… strange.’
Ruggiero shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He wanted to hear, but she was drawing him into the intimate sphere of husband and wife, a place he had not been before. It sounded like she was looking for advice, and he was not sure he could give it.
‘We have a sort of code…’ She took his arm and stroked it. With a smile to lessen the significance of his action, he drew his arm away.
‘Sorry. You’re getting too old for my caresses,’ she said.
‘It’s just that… Tell me about your code.’
‘There isn’t much to it. Papa said all we needed were a few key words and a tone. The words themselves don’t matter. For instance, if he mentioned the toy box in Robertino’s room, it indicated urgency.’
The box had used to be his, and before that his father’s. It was bright red with sharp edges, and it snapped shut like a shark over bait whenever you leaned into it to pull out a toy.
‘Did he mention the box?’
‘Yes. And he warned me both about the authorities and about our neighbours. But then he reminded me he was on his way down in a few days. He said that plainly. Then we spoke of meals in a way that made it sound like code, but it wasn’t. In the end the messages were so mixed I couldn’t understand what he was telling me.’
‘Anyone listening in will have picked up that he was coding messages, even if they didn’t understand the meaning,’ said Ruggiero.
‘Listen to you, the expert,’ said his mother with affection, instinctively reaching out to caress his arm again, then stopping herself. ‘He often has fun like that, teasing any judicial police that might be listening in, but in this case he wanted anyone, not just the police, to be suspicious and confused.’
‘So his message was that he can’t pass on messages.’
‘Which means he’s worried about more than just the police, and he wants us to be, too. And then yesterday, you…’
‘That was nothing, Mamma. But he’ll be here soon. All we have to do is wait.’
Ruggiero trusted his father, and believed in his strength, but sometimes had to concentrate a little before he could call up a clear picture of his face. When his father did come home from Germany, he was always an unhealthy white colour. His clothes smelled foreign, and he sometimes seemed to have a slight difficulty with speaking Italian, exaggerating the dialect when talking to Ruggiero, but soon running out of things to say. Then he would start talking about the funny things the Germans said and believed, and he would praise their cars and roads. His father and mother would retire into their bedroom, speak in private tones, then the volume would drop still further, and yet he could still hear them hushing each other and stifling sounds that were already muted.
He knew now what they were up to. Luca once claimed to have watched his parents through the keyhole, but then altered his story when Pepe accused him of perversion.
Even without Luca’s graphic eyewitness accounts, by now they all knew what their returning fathers did with their mothers — hence the arrival of Roberto, or Robertino as he immediately became known and would probably remain for the rest of his life. All the kids had a father who worked abroad, except Pepe whose father ran the garage. Enrico, of course, lived with his aunt and uncle. His mother had died from breast cancer several years after Enrico was born, and his father showed no interest in finding a replacement either in Germany or Calabria. Enrico claimed he remembered his mother’s face, but she was dead before he was four, which made his claim as unreliable as most of what he said.
The one thing Ruggiero knew for certain was that no matter what happened, his father would do the right thing, and that anything his father told him to do he would do. The Curmacis might not be the most loved family, but Basile, too, was unloved, had few surviving blood relatives, yet his writ extended as far as Filadelfia. People might whisper about the Curmacis, but no one would ever dare say out loud that Agazio Curmaci was an infame, which made the atmosphere of intimidation in the bar yesterday hard to accept.
He went up to his bedroom. His father would soon return to the village and on September 2nd they would attend the procession of the Madonna di Polsi and enjoy a fine picnic afterwards, where he would be encouraged by his father to drink wine and warned by his mother not to. Together he and his father would display quiet confidence.
Downstairs, his mother was moving back and forth as if cleaning the house. Ruggiero lay on his bed, closed his eyes and inhaled its familiar smell, the smell that had accompanied him through his childhood. He wished his father were here already, guarding the doors, fighting for his family.
Lake Avernus, Pozzuoli-Naples
Konrad was talking again.
‘It is logical for people with serious communication problems, or who are autistic or aggressive or sociopathic or suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, to choose to leave their home environment and live in a foreign land. I think this might explain some of the characteristics of the American people. Maladapted Europeans and captive Africans.’
‘Indeed?’ said Blume. Most of his energy was going into keeping the camper van on the road.
‘Yes, because people with serious problems in their relationships, if they are intelligent, travel away from their home and stay away. When they are abroad, they always have a pretext for acting alienated and their incapacity to relate to normal society becomes part of their foreignness. People will often justify their strange and sometimes unpleasant behaviour on the grounds of cultural differences and homesickness,’ said Konrad. ‘America was built by people like these. Also, if I might add, they were not very efficient people. These “pioneers” had an entire continent at their disposal as well as slave labour, yet their empire has lasted less time than the Macedonian kingdom. And as for comparing it with the Roman or Greek empires.. ’
‘You’re just in a bad mood because you haven’t eaten,’ said Blume.
‘I am not in a bad mood. But you are not a relaxing driver.’
‘You shouldn’t have drunk so much wine on an empty stomach, then you could be at the wheel.’
‘You are right. You will take me to Lake Avernus before we go on to Positano.’
‘Was that a question or an order?’ said Blume.
Konrad bent his head down so he could look out the window at the scenery around him. From the doleful head-shaking that followed, Blume knew what turn the conversation was about to take.
After several minutes Konrad said, ‘This country is filthy. So far every verge has been filled with rubbish and every road is full of potholes. Everything is falling down.’
Blume nodded, pleased at having guessed right. ‘I thought you might be about to say that, because you’ve already said that.’
‘But it is a disgrace,’ said Konrad. ‘Is this not a sign of inferiority? Be honest.’ But instead of giving Blume a chance to be honest, he added, ‘I do not think Italians will ever defeat organized crime. I think your theory about small units is quite plausible, but I don’t think it fully explains the Italian tendency to illegal behaviour. Of course, I do not think the Italians are racially inclined to violence and theft… and bad driving. I am hardly,’ he laughed at the absurdity of the idea, ‘a racist.’
‘The thought never even crossed my mind,’ said Blume.
‘… I think perhaps they have a virus.’
‘If you’re talking about the Mafia, remember that viruses spread, and Germany has been infected for some time.’
‘You must understand that I am not using a metaphor. I am referring to a real virus, a biological virus. Are you all right, Commissioner? You seem to be sucking.’
‘ Mist. That is not the right word. You have tremors in your face and you are pressing your eyes closed.’
‘I suffer from headaches,’ said Blume.
‘You should try transcranial magnetic stimulation,’ said Konrad. ‘It also gets rid of depression and reveals your hidden artistic abilities. Unfortunately, the effects are not permanent.’
‘I’ll tell my terrific doctor. What’s this virus you’re talking about?’
‘It is called Toxoplasma gondii. It is a virus like the one that causes malaria, and it is common throughout the world, but I believe it is particularly common in Italy. This virus enters the bloodstream, then invades the brains of its victims, in this case Italians, and causes neurosis. This is not to say all Italians have Toxoplasma gondii, but perhaps more have it here than in other countries. It causes poor driving and an inclination to risk taking and rule breaking.’
‘Where does your mysterious virus come from, Konrad?’
‘Ultimately, all viruses come from outer space.’
‘Same quadrant as you?’ asked Blume.
‘This virus,’ continued Konrad, ‘resides in cats and rats and other mammals. A rat with the virus altering its brain might be unnaturally attracted to cats — this is the risk taking at work, you understand. So the rat goes to the cat and says chase me…’
‘So it’s a talking rat?’
‘Obviously the rat does not speak,’ said Konrad. ‘You are not taking this seriously. You are a superficial man.’
‘I am sorry,’ said Blume. ‘The rat, without speaking, informs the cat — in writing perhaps? — that it wants to be chased.’
‘It makes this clear by virtue of the fact it approaches the cat. An animal that deliberately approaches its predator and seeks death is an unnatural thing.’
‘So the cat kills the rat,’ said Blume.
‘Absolutely!’ said Konrad, pleased that Blume had followed him this far in his reasoning. ‘The rat gets caught and dies, but the virus goes into the cat and from there it gets passed to humans. But it is also passed from the eating of raw meat. I am thinking of the raw pig that makes prosciutto, the raw beef in bresaola and Florentine steaks, raw milk used for cheeses, salami and lamb, but also contact with the soil.’
‘This is science fact?’
‘Unfortunately, Italy does not regularly screen its pregnant women for the virus, but all the contributing factors and symptoms are plain to see, so it is a reasonable scientific hypothesis.’
‘So maybe we should be concentrating on rounding up the cats, and after a few generations our women will stop giving birth to baby Mafiosi.’
‘You know I can tell when you are mocking me,’ said Konrad.
Ten minutes later they arrived at the lake.
‘I forget,’ said Blume. ‘Why are we here?’
‘You said you studied Latin in school,’ said Konrad. ‘You must have read Virgil?’
‘We had to.’
‘Ah.’ Konrad fell silent and consulted the SatNav and then surveyed the landscape, a frown on his face.
Blume cut the engine and climbed out of the camper van. It was good to stretch his legs. The two of them were the only people in sight. They walked down to the low wall bordering the lake. Blume jumped up onto the ledge and walked along it, looking down at Konrad’s bald patch. ‘This is Lake Avernus. I can see you’re disappointed. Is it the smell? That’s sulphur. It’s supposed to be good for you.’
Konrad followed Blume along the wall, then called out after him. ‘It’s not the smell. It’s the cement buildings all around. Also I thought Lake Avernus would be bigger.’
‘It’s just a large pool on the top of an exploded volcanic crater,’ said Blume.
Reluctantly, Konrad caught up with Blume. ‘But for such an important place…’
‘What’s important about it?’ asked Blume, leaping off the wall. The walk was doing him good.
‘In mythology, this is the Gate to Hades, the entrance to the Underworld. I thought you said you had to read Virgil in school.’
‘Doesn’t mean I have to believe him. Mythology again. You’re really into this stuff,’ said Blume. ‘Konrad, it’s just a lake. Virgil made all that shit up to please the new emperor. He probably didn’t even bother coming here to look at it.’
‘But there are real ruins of the Cumae sibyl over there. Those are real.’
‘Real in that there are Roman ruins there, yes. We don’t have time for a visit.’
‘Shh! I need to control something,’ said Konrad.
‘Check something, you mean, unless you’re talking about a Teutonic urge to take over a country, in which case…’
‘Please. You must be silent.’
Konrad appeared to be scanning the sky and listening hard, like a gunner waiting for an air attack. Eventually, he began to smile. ‘There. What do you hear?’
By way of reply, Blume popped another aspirin.
‘Can’t you hear the silence?’ said Konrad, his eyes still skyward.
‘I can hear a television,’ said Blume. ‘A motorbike, a girl having an argument, someone hammering metal on the other side of the lake, a dog barking, now I hear a car… and a passenger jet coming into Capodichino airport. Tell me when to stop.’
‘No, no, I meant the silence. Listen to the silence!’
‘Behind all the noise, there’s always silence,’ said Blume.
‘I meant the absence of birds. Virgil wrote that no birds fly over this lake, because it is the entrance to the Underworld. And look, just as Virgil said, there are no birds! Avernus, you see, comes from the Greek a-ornithos, which means without birds.’
‘Do ducks count?’ said Blume, pointing to a bunch of reeds from which a loud quacking sound like laughter was emerging.
Konrad folded his arms and stared disapprovingly at the reeds, before striding off like a damaged wind-up toy back to the camper van, and remained there making his own contribution to the silence.
Blume, fed up with driving, decided Konrad was sober enough to get back in the driver’s seat. This seemed to cheer the BKA man up somewhat. He disappeared into the back of the camper and emerged with a packet of wholemeal biscuits and black Vollkornbrot, a piece of which he offered to Blume. Blume declined the bread and pointed instead to Konrad’s SatNav. ‘Use your navigator to get us out of here and plot a route to the hotel. Put in Campi Flegrei to Positano, see if it forces us to pass through the middle of Naples, which it probably will.’
Konrad was pleased to do this, and they were soon on their way again, bouncing down a crumbling lane, branches scraping the sides of the van. By Blume’s reckoning the pointless expedition to Lake Avernus, a place far below Konrad’s classicist expectations, had cost them no more than an hour and a half.
After ten minutes of driving, Blume stopped believing the SatNav and told Konrad to take a left, then another. The SatNav announced that it was recalculating, and then instructed them to go right where no right was to be seen. Blume realized they must have missed a turn, and were now heading inland, away from the Naples Tangenziale.
Konrad, who had maintained a beautiful silence all this time, now stopped dead in the middle of a crossroads and read out the road signs: ‘Quarto, Manano. We are in Campi Flegrei now, I think… where is Pozzuoli? It must be behind us.’ He pulled the camper to the side of the road.
‘That’s your stupid navigator for you.’
‘I have very good orienteering skills, but I need to be outside the vehicle,’ said Konrad.
‘No, you stay there. I’ll do this,’ said Blume. He got out of the camper van and stood on the bonnet to see over the hedges. He caught a glimpse of the sea, which was enough. If they headed that way, they couldn’t go wrong.
Konrad got out too.
‘No, you get back in. I don’t want advice from you or your navigator.’
Konrad stayed where he was. ‘I got out because I think your reckless driving damaged the engine,’ he said. ‘I think it is beginning to overheat.’
Blume had noticed the burning smell, too, but had put it out of his mind. He sniffed at the bonnet. Nothing.
‘I think it’s coming from somewhere over there,’ he said. ‘Someone is burning stubble in a field.’
Konrad tilted his head back and sniffed. ‘It is melting plastic,’ he announced. ‘Naples is famous for this sort of behaviour. But perhaps it is a house?’
‘You will run that risk?’
‘More of a risk for whoever’s in the house than for me.’
‘That’s your attitude?’
‘Jesus. Look, I’ll show you it’s not a house. Come on.’
The pair of them walked in the direction of the smoke, now getting thicker and yellower and sweeter. It reawakened Blume’s headache.
‘There,’ said Blume, pointing. ‘Someone is burning plastic in a field.’
‘Like that, in broad daylight. In front of neighbours,’ marvelled Konrad. ‘In Germany…’
‘This isn’t Germany,’ said Blume.
‘No. In Germany we have a society and the law is the same for everyone. Gesellschaft is the word. Here it is all Gemeinschaft. The law is not equal and justice is achieved through private channels.’
They had reached the edge of the field, on the far side of which a pile of plastic sacks was smouldering. There were houses about, but no one in sight. Blume waved his hand at the dreary dump and said, ‘Satisfied?’
‘If we were in Germany and I was showing you my country, and we discovered something like this, I would intervene as a policeman.’
Blume clambered over some woody briars and stood at the edge of the field, watching the white and yellow plumes of poison floating straight up, until a breeze from the sea caused them to swirl and drift towards him. He covered his mouth and nose with his arm and walked forwards. There was no one about, and there was no way of knowing to whom the field belonged. The wind changed direction again and blew the air clean, allowing him to breathe and see better. He could probably stamp on the smouldering heap and put it out.
He turned back and looked at Konrad, who had moved closer to the camper van. Another stream of air from the sea lifted up a new type of blacker and harsher smoke, smelling of diesel fumes, which clung to the ground, turning over and over on itself. Fuck this, he thought to himself, and turned back.
A sudden dull thump made him look around as, fanned by a crosswind, the rubbish heap burst into orange flame. The heavy oily smoke merged with the faster-moving yellow clouds to create an opaque fog that billowed outwards and upwards, far higher and faster than the quantity of material seemed to justify. There was no question now of approaching to investigate. If the blaze became any more intense, maybe one of the neighbours, or the arsonist himself, would call the fire brigade and ask them to save his house. If they turned up too late, he would appear on national television to denounce the government authorities for his misfortunes.
The subsiding black soil in the middle of the flame seemed to writhe and emit a hissing and screeching sound. As Blume stood fascinated, something scampered across the top of his shoe, and a moment later another object, soft but with compact mass and moving at speed, knocked against his ankle.
Blume felt his flesh tighten against his bones. Fleeing rats, many of them, were rushing towards him, escaping the fire and smoke. The writhing mass on the ground was almost upon him, as he broke into a run.
He was far too late to escape the living tide. Hundreds of rats overtook him, fanning out in front of him as if he were the pursuer and they the pursued. As he drew near the camper, gathering pace all the time, he saw Konrad leap in and slam the driver’s door behind him and vanish.
Faster rats from behind mounted the backs of the slower ones in front, sometimes leapfrogging them, sometimes tumbling in the process, causing a pile-up, into which other rats would run until three or four of them stacked on top of each other, momentarily as high as his kneecaps.
Konrad was invisible, still deaf to his appeals, so Blume adjusted his flight and headed for the side of the camper van, which he hit at full speed. The door was unlocked, but he had to stop and pull it outwards. He jumped in and kicked it closed, but had the feeling that something else had leapt in with him. He surveyed the floor, the walls, and thought he saw a movement near Konrad’s suitcases. Well, one or two rodents wasn’t a problem. He shoved his head through the curtain separating him from the cab, where Konrad lay across the two seats, as white as if he were dead. When Blume appeared, Konrad let out a low moan of abject terror, before making a slight recovery, edging himself out of his prostrate position into one that was merely slumped.
‘Keys,’ demanded Blume, climbing with difficulty through the gap and into the front.
Konrad started fumbling around in his pockets. The soft thuds against the side of the camper and the dancing and trembling sensation from the ground beneath were like heavy rain. Blume manoeuvred himself into the driver’s seat. Konrad was now waving the keys in front of him, but Blume was staring transfixed out the window. The rats had gone already, and the sea wind had snatched the toxic smoke and whipped it away into the clouds to poison the raindrops.
Blume, still pumping adrenalin and overcome with a desire to laugh and whoop, found it difficult to keep his hands steady as he inserted the key in the ignition, and started the engine. He turned the steering wheel slowly, to give any lurking rodents a chance to escape. He did not want to spare them, but he did not quite relish the idea of driving over their hunched grey backs like they were furry cobblestones. As he reversed he felt a suspicious bump under a wheel, then another.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Blume. ‘That is something else.’
Konrad was sitting up almost straight now, and was in the process of composing himself when, out of nowhere, a rat skidded across the bonnet so fast it seemed to Blume that the animal had cleared the front of the van with a single leap. Konrad screamed. Instinctively, Blume slammed on the brakes, sending himself and Konrad lurching forward against the window. The vehicle shuddered to a halt, the engine cut out, and they sat in the unexpected silence, looking at each other.
Konrad had frozen up so much that when he spoke it was almost without his lips moving. ‘Please, take me away from this place.’
Blume pulled the key from the ignition and swung the key ring on his finger, looking thoughtful.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Waiting for you to tell me what you’re doing in Italy, Konrad.’
The inspector turned on the light, which shed a blue-tinged glow and bathed the young policeman beside him in a deathly pallor. The room contained a plastic bucket-seat chair with rusting legs, and the floor was made of unlevelled cement.
The building they stood in had belonged to the Mancuso clan, one of the principal Ndrangheta ’ ndrine in Milan. The seizure of the property by the police was supposed to have a symbolic effect, which it did — but not the intended one. Private investors turned out to be too afraid to use the building and the City failed to do anything with it. The final message was that the Ndrangheta was stronger than the state.
‘Give the walls a kick, see if they sound hollow.’
The young policeman was more conscientious than that, and methodically worked his way across the narrow space tapping the wall every inch from bottom to top and back again. His older colleague, shamed, did the same. After ten minutes, they were pretty sure nothing was hidden behind the walls.
‘There’s some staining here,’ said the young policeman.
‘That’s just damp.’
‘Maybe, but then it has to be recent because there is no mould and I can’t smell much damp in here. Some, but not a lot. Also, there’s a patch on the floor. It’s like they hosed down the place not too long ago, which would be strange. Who’d want to clean up in here?’
The inspector hunkered down and touched the floor with the back of his hand. ‘It seems fairly dry.’ A dull sheen near the corner of the room caught his eye, then disappeared. He went over to investigate and found himself marvelling at the fact they had not seen it immediately.
‘Look here,’ he said.
‘What? I can’t see anything.’
‘It’s a gold ring. It looks like a wedding ring.’
Magistrate Francesco Fossati held the clear plastic bag up to the light and examined the ring.
He handed it to a white-suited technician. ‘Can you use luminol spray in here, and examine those stains?’
‘This place is overrun with rats and stray animals who have been shitting all over the place,’ said the technician. ‘The whole place will light up blue. The important thing is to get a fleck of blood from the wall or floor, if that’s what you’re looking for.’
‘You’re the experts,’ said the magistrate. ‘Get scraping, or whatever you need to do.’
The technician handed the magistrate back the evidence bag. ‘There’s something written on the inside of the ring. A name… date. See?’
Fossati pulled out his reading glasses and perched them on the end of his nose. ‘Letizia,’ he read. ‘And then there is a date. “23 July 1985.” ’
‘Some wife is going to be pissed off with her husband for losing that,’ said the inspector.
But Fossati knew what they had found. ‘Was it covered in dirt?’ he asked the young policeman, who immediately reddened.
‘I don’t think so, but I didn’t touch it.’ Then he brightened up. ‘But they took photos. You can ask the technical team…’
‘Asking you was supposed to be a shortcut. Did it look like it had been there for long?’
The policeman decided to risk an opinion. ‘No. It looked newly lost.’
‘Yes,’ said Fossati, mainly to himself. ‘From a few days ago.’
Fossati had listened to his old friend Bazza and had not been concentrating on the Ndrangheta as likely perpetrators of the kidnapping. But Mafia-owned or not, this was an abandoned building that lay close to the place where the girl was last seen. And now he had a piece of vital evidence for Bazza, who would be grateful but would forever remain convinced that Fossati had ignored his advice and focused on a Mafia connection.
Fossati realized he had probably found the place where Arconti had been murdered. Letizia was the name of the wife of the murder victim. It was a good find, but he felt no triumph. Teresa was still missing, Arconti was still dead.
The technician appeared at the doorway. ‘Someone or something was shot in there.’
Fossati nodded. ‘Yes, that makes sense.’
The technician looked at him in surprise. ‘There is even a small pockmark on the wall. We can look at the RNA ratios to see how old the bloodstains are. We need arc lights and more manpower in there.’
Fossati called in the inspector and the policeman.
‘Well done on finding the ring, but you two seem not to have noticed a wall covered in blood.’
The young policeman looked mortified, but the inspector stood his ground and returned the magistrate’s gaze. ‘That’s because you told us to look for something else: the body of a girl, a hiding place.’
‘So it’s my fault?’ said Fossati. ‘Maybe you’re right. You found something I wasn’t looking for, but I know someone who was.’
On the Road to Naples-Amalfi
‘I am investigating a possible new connection between the Camorra and the Ndrangheta for the dumping of toxic waste,’ said Konrad, glancing nervously out the window as if the rats might still be following them.
‘In your own time?’
‘I am dedicated, and I work best alone.’
The Camorra, the ‘system’ as they called it locally, was seeking to expand its drug operations into Lazio and was organizing a deal with the Ndrangheta for better wholesale prices and services in kind, namely the illegal dumping of toxic waste into the aquifers of Naples. Crime bosses drank only mineral water these days, observed Konrad.
His story was perfectly plausible. In fact, it was probably true that the Camorra and Ndrangheta were colluding, but Blume didn’t believe for a moment that it had anything to do with Konrad’s trip. No, the man, who now sat hunched and defensive in the passenger seat, was still not telling the truth. Blume could understand the anxiety of Konrad’s superiors. For all his academic precision and pretention, there was something reckless and irrational driving him, as if once untethered from a lifetime of desk-based investigation, he no longer cared for consequences.
Blume figured the best tactic was to nod and look as if he accepted the explanation. He knew from experience that suspects who had unconvincing alibis that they thought no intelligent person could accept were often more annoyed than relieved if their unlikely stories seemed to be taken at face value. Disappointed by the stupidity of their questioners, and unable to overcome the human need to be understood, they often started hinting at the truth. That was not how it always worked of course, but Blume figured Konrad would not be able to bear it for long, and he was right.
‘I am glad you told me that,’ he told Konrad. ‘Now I have something to put in my report. I guess you were worried about your investigation being leaked?’
‘No. I mean, yes. That’s it.’
‘Great. I don’t see why you couldn’t have told us that earlier. And told your bosses. I’m guessing you’re working on a hunch, and you don’t want to make a big deal of it until you’re ready.’
Konrad was growing increasingly uncomfortable with every rationalization Blume gave to his story, and merely nodded unhappily.
Blume drove on for another ten minutes, whistling as if a great load had been taken off his mind.
Suddenly, Konrad could bear it no more. ‘I know who you are,’ he said.
‘Well, we were introduced.’
‘Not like that. Your name appears as a lead investigator appointed by the prosecuting magistrate Matteo Arconti into a case that involved a relation of a person called Agazio Curmaci, who is Megale’s right-hand man. I know about the murder of a man to intimidate Arconti. I don’t believe you were appointed by chance to stay by me. I think you are also conducting an investigation into Megale or his son or Curmaci.’
‘What an inventive mind you have,’ said Blume. ‘When you say “you also”, do you mean you are doing the same thing?’
‘I do not understand.’
‘Or do you mean “I, among other things, am also conducting an investigation”?’
‘Are you attacking my grammar?’ asked Konrad.
‘Never mind,’ said Blume. He took the Tangenziale, and they were soon cruising along in a long loop around Naples on their way to the Amalfi coast.
‘Are you intending to go down to Calabria?’
Konrad shrugged his thin shoulders.
‘Are you working for Megale?’
‘I am offended by your suggestion.’
‘You visited him.’
Konrad shrugged again.
‘Follow my reasoning, here, Konrad. Megale is not a BKA asset, not your asset, not your paymaster, and yet this visit. There are only two explanations left.’
Konrad perked up, as if he, too, was interested in hearing his own reasons.
‘You went to him for help or information,’ said Blume, ‘or both.’
‘I needed to find out some things, and I need to find out one or two things here, then I will go home. It is a personal matter that has nothing to do with anyone else.’
‘How did you get Megale to talk to you? Bosses are not naturally helpful to federal agents.’
‘I am very good at database mining,’ said Konrad. ‘If I get the numbers, I can see patterns. I have built up a good picture of the shell companies and money-laundering methods that Megale and his men use. I explained to him some of what I knew about how his German locale was operating, and he was interested in me and listened.’
‘So he thinks you’re suppressing information that could be used against him? Are you?’
‘I will be reporting everything I know when I get back,’ said Konrad. ‘I am proud to say criminal bosses have no reason to trust me.’
‘But first, you got him to tell you something in exchange for your silence? Or temporary silence as you say it will be.’
‘I am not answering that,’ said Konrad. ‘I just showed him I know about his shell companies, though I don’t know as much as I pretended, and I proved I knew some details about his money laundering.’
‘Money laundering comes in three stages.’
‘Placement, layering and investment,’ said Blume.
‘Exactly. When it comes to investments, Megale seems to work more with Agazio Curmaci than with his own son, or with the contabile who’s supposed to be in charge of finances,’ said Konrad.
He paused to measure Blume’s reaction. Blume kept his eyes on the road ahead.
‘Curmaci comes between the layering and investment phases,’ continued Konrad. ‘He’s the last connection back to the Ndrangheta. Everything downstream of him is clean. He’s like a filter.’
‘I see,’ said Blume.
‘And that is why his violent and rash reactions to his wife’s cousins being arrested are completely out of character. I am wondering if your Investigating Magistrate Arconti managed to provoke him in some way.’
‘Not enough to justify what happened,’ said Blume. ‘I find it odd to be talking about Curmaci all of a sudden with you.’
‘The criminal world gets small at the top of the pyramid,’ said Konrad. ‘Curmaci rather than Megale junior seems to be second to Megale senior. Would you say that’s right?’
Despite himself, Blume was impressed. Without any change in his characteristic mixture of self-aggrandizement and moodiness, Konrad had reversed the direction of the questioning.
‘Am I right in thinking,’ said Blume, ‘that one of the reasons you agreed to travel with me was you were hoping I might give you more information on Curmaci?’
Konrad shook his head. ‘No, I don’t need any more information. I had no choice about accepting you. I would prefer to be left alone for this.’
Blume guided the camper van halfway into the emergency lane to avoid being sideswiped by the vehicles passing them. Eventually he said, ‘The main reason I am here is I am interested in joining the DCSA or maybe getting a recommendation that would allow me to apply to the DIA. I wanted to get away from my colleagues and my desk. But I have nothing special to give you on Curmaci.’
‘I thought you said you had a girlfriend who worked with you?’
‘Yes… what of it?’
‘Why would you want to leave her behind and spend your time travelling on missions?’
‘That’s got nothing to do with anything,’ said Blume.
‘It seems to me you are running away.’ Konrad might have said more, but an unmistakable thump followed by a scuttling noise from behind caused him to freeze and whiten.
‘Yeah,’ said Blume casually. ‘There is a rat in there. Maybe two. They must have got in with me.’
Konrad made a choking sound and he grabbed at the door handle, as if intending to hurl himself out of the vehicle and into the path of the cars speeding past them.
‘Please, stop. We must get out.’
‘I can’t stop in the middle of this highway, Konrad. And the emergency lane has just disappeared. I saw a sign back there for a service station. We’ll pull in there.’
Konrad unbuckled his seatbelt and twisted around in his seat to watch the back. ‘How far?’
‘A few kilometres. We’ll be there in a minute or two. You really don’t like rats, do you?’
Konrad had a wild look in his eyes and his teeth were clenched. He was attempting to stand, back to the windscreen, and his whole body was twisted into a hideous shape, his limbs jutting out like bent straws.
‘I think it’s fair to call this rat thing a phobia,’ said Blume, ‘but no problem, we’re there already.’ He headed towards the ramp leading into the service station. ‘I don’t like them either, but I keep my fear in check. But I suppose you’re terrified a rat will bite you and you’ll get that virus that turns you into an Italian. Go on, hop out, go into the Autogrill, and get yourself coffee and a sandwich or something. I’ll deal with the rat in the kitchen. Tell you what, get me one of those frozen coffee things. You know them? You pull out a tab, shake the container and the coffee goes really cold? Don’t make the mistake of getting the red container, which turns the coffee hot. And get me some sweets. A pack of fruit Mentos would be nice. Are you listening?’
Konrad had the door open before Blume had even stopped the camper van.
Caterina knew that this fair-haired magistrate with his chin-strap beard was bullying her because he in his turn had been humiliated. Appointed to conduct an investigation into a potentially important case, he, like her, had spent his weekend gathering evidence and background information. In fact, he had been playing catch-up with her, since she was further ahead with her inquiries. Then the whole thing was taken from him and transferred to the Milan section of the anti-Mafia magistrates before he had had the chance to issue his first executive order.
‘The police in Milan have just confirmed that the burned-out van in Sesto San Giovanni was the same one you were attempting to trace from Rome to Milan. Presumably the two burned bodies they found are the people you were looking for.’
Caterina and her colleagues had spent almost three full days on the reconstruction of the movements of the van, tracking it at the north Rome Tollgate, picking it up again using the traffic speed cameras near Florence, getting decent-quality images of the occupants when they stopped at a service area after Bologna. Their best stroke of fortune had been when the driver paid for fuel by credit card. They were able to get an identification of the driver, a certain Teodor Popescu. The card and the van were registered to an office-cleaning company set up by a building renovations group associated with a real-estate management firm specializing in decommissioned and disused buildings whose holdings included warehouses in Sesto San Giovanni where, as it turned out, the driver and occupant of the van were both killed. Dutifully and promptly, Caterina and her team had handed all the information to this young magistrate, practically in a gift box with a bow on it. The magistrate had somehow botched his effort to steal all the credit for it as he passed it on to Milan, since the head of the investigation there had asked not for the opinion of the magistrate, but had asked for her by name.
Caterina merely nodded as he told her that she should have spent more time investigating the scene of the crime. He conceded it was hardly her fault. Her commander had vanished and left her, a woman with a child and insufficient experience, to run a full investigation.
‘Thank you, Caterina,’ he said as she was leaving. ‘Are you sure you have held nothing back from me?’
‘Nothing. But call me Inspector Mattiola, Signor Giudice, not Caterina.’
She left the door open on her way out, hoping it annoyed the magistrate as much as it annoyed Blume, which, she admitted, was hardly possible.
Unlike Blume, Caterina was a glutton for the summer heat, even in the city. She loved the way it bounced off the pavement back at her face in the early afternoon, then radiated from the buildings in the evening. When the sun heated her hair, it felt like a soft electric current was running through every strand. In the heat everyone walked more slowly and deliberately. She loved the way Roman drivers eschewed air-conditioning, preferring to leave the window open and droop an arm against the side of their car, raising their hand sometimes to direct a refreshing airflow up their arm, sometimes to greet people, more often to insult other drivers with languid gestures. The gleam of the light off the windscreens and metal of the incessant traffic lifted her spirits. The blaring horns, which were full of violence and irritability in the winter, seemed now to be celebratory and bear no ill will. Happy motorbikes and scooters roared through gaps in the traffic and across dangerous intersections, the riders sounding their horns in delight at the way the rushing warm air kept them dry and alert. She passed an old man sitting on a broken bench milking the sun, oblivious to the traffic. She remembered her grandfather sitting on a park bench like that, his face pointed up, as blissful as a lizard.
And yet she wished Blume were here to spoil it all for her. He’d have a jacket on and be sweating underneath it. He’d clump around in his heavy shoes, which he wore off duty and on, contemptuous of men wearing ‘Jesus sandals’ as he called them, appalled at the ugliness of people’s feet. When it became too much even for him to wear heavy clothes, he’d appear wearing the T-shirt he had had on in bed, shiny running shoes and shorts, and pretend day after day that he was going to the park for a run until eventually he did go running, if only to save face (but not his knees, as he would make perfectly plain for the next few weeks). If he were here now, instead of avoiding her and sneaking off on a mission, he’d be complaining of the dust and the grime, and would be seething in rage at the people walking too slow, the drivers driving too fast, the stench of the unemptied skips, the starling droppings and the sticky residue of the lime trees on the bonnet of his car. But he was always funny, intentionally or not, when raging against the heat and his adopted city.
Caterina entered the Gelateria dei Gracchi, to which Blume had introduced her. He said their ice cream was better even than Toni’s on Colli Portuensi, and he was possibly right, but still she preferred Toni’s. He had brought her here on one of those rare days they had been able to spend in each other’s company.
She now ordered herself a rich yellow, cream and walnut cone, and ate it, reflecting on how well she had handled that little shit of a magistrate. The sun had disinfected him out of her mind. Blume absorbed all his rage deep into his body and let it seep out slowly through sarcasm and headaches and intestinal problems he never mentioned and would be mortified to think she knew anything about.
Caterina was considering whether or not to eat the cone. It seemed ridiculous to worry about the few calories left in her hand after she had said yes to the whipped cream on top five minutes earlier. Her minor quandary was resolved by the trilling of an incoming call. She dropped the cone into the overflowing rubbish bin outside the gelateria, and kissed her fingers clean, before fishing the mobile phone from her bag. She glanced at it and saw an unknown number of a few digits. An institution of some sort, she guessed.
‘Inspector Mattiola?’ A woman’s voice.
‘I am Doctor Silvia La Verde, Consultant Neurologist at the Gemelli Hospital. I am phoning on behalf of Magistrate Matteo Arconti, who is unable to make the call.’
‘Absolutely, and he’s sitting here right beside me. He has some difficulty in holding a phone and pressing buttons…’
Like Blume, then, thought Caterina.
‘… but I am confident we can deal with that over the next weeks and months. He has no problems, or only very minor problems relating to muscle control, in speaking. I’m going to put the phone to his ear now.’
Caterina waited a moment.
‘Eeeola?’ said the voice, which sounded like it was coming from the other side of the tomb.
‘Eeola?’ she said.
‘Caterina Mattiola, yes, sir, that’s me. How can I help?’
Silence. Then some voices in the background, someone exclaiming something.
‘Chief Inspector Mattiola,’ said the same voice, almost perfectly normal now, apart from a slight slurring. ‘Magistrate Matteo Arconti here. Sorry about that. It turns out I can speak perfectly fine if the phone is at my right ear, but I become almost aphasic if it’s at my left. Half my brain seems to be numb. Dr La Verde here is very interested in this. I think she’s writing a book about people like me.’
Caterina allowed her silence to convey that she had no idea what he was talking about.
‘I was wondering, could you find time to pay me a visit. Just you, mind. I have a few things I’d like to ask you.’
‘Can’t you ask me about them now?’ said Caterina. She had just used up her last stores of tolerance for pompous magistrates.
‘I have a consultant neurologist acting as a phone holder. I really think you should come here, Inspector.’
They always did that, conversationally demoted you by one rank when they sensed a lack of deference.
Perhaps sensing an imminent refusal, Arconti added, ‘If you really want to know, I don’t so much want to ask you questions as to tell you a few things. They concern Commissioner Alec Blume, and a little trouble he has made for himself.’
He could have said that to begin with.
‘I’m on my way,’ she said.
Castellammare di Stabia, Naples
Blume waited till Konrad had gone in, then, instead of parking in front, backed up and drove the camper van around to the rear and squeezed behind a semitrailer. Moving quickly, he left the cab and opened the door to the living quarters, and stomped in, lashing out with his feet at anything he thought he saw moving. He flicked on the light, but it only cast a buttery glow on a section of the ceiling, and illuminated nothing. He saw he could let in more light by opening the curtain that closed off the driver’s cab.
The rat, the size of a small cat, was attached to the curtain, perfectly motionless, its pink feet digging into the fabric. It had positioned itself right behind the passenger seat, inches from where Konrad’s head had been. Its nose was pointing up towards the ceiling, its tail swinging almost imperceptibly to and fro to offset the gentle sway of the curtain.
Hickory, dickory dock, sang Blume to himself, his eyes seeking a weapon as the animal continued to gaze upwards, pretending not to have seen him as he pretended not to have seen it.
Blume moved deeper into the camper, quietly unlocked a cupboard, and pulled out the first thing his hand touched, which turned out to be a can of insecticide. Fine. He’d use it as a baton. As he transferred it to his right hand, the rat did a 180-degree rotation, turning his nose from twelve to six. Blume, momentarily experiencing some of the horror he had seen written on Konrad’s features, launched the canister. With a casually insulting backward flip, the rat executed a somersault in the air and landed on its feet on the floor, walking rather than running out the door just as Blume’s useless aerosol hit the curtain. Blume stepped to the door, just in time to see the rat slip under the rear wheel of the camper van, very much with the air of one prepared to bide his time until the human persecutor had left.
He pulled the door to. Without the breeze, the room immediately became airless and hot. He made a very rapid survey of the camper, pausing again to look at the faded picture of the girl. Then he went over to Konrad’s two leather suitcases and lifted the larger onto the misery-inducing Formica table bolted to the floor. It was closed with a small combination padlock of the sort that could be sprung with the help of a mini-screwdriver and the sudden application of force. But he had no such screwdriver to hand. Patiently, he pulled gently on the latch, seeing which of the dials felt tightest. He zeroed it, tested again, found the third dial was now tightest, and worked at that. It took him less than two minutes to get the combination.
Sweating profusely now as the sun outside turned the camper into a Dutch oven, Blume opened the suitcase. As expected, Konrad’s clothes were neatly folded and separated by type. Blume stood back and looked carefully at the contents, studying patterns, memorizing the order. Then he started taking out the clothes item by item and running his hand over each.
He had to open the door for air. He glanced down at the wheel, seeing nothing. ‘Hey, rat?’ he called. ‘Want to climb in here, make a nest in Hoffmann’s underpants?’
Comforted by the breeze, he returned to his task of feeling his way through the contents, stroking the silky lining of the suitcase with the back of his hand. He double-checked to see if he had missed anything in the front pocket, then set about putting everything back. The second suitcase had the same combination as the first.
The contents here proved more interesting. He immediately found a notebook, with an expensive vellum cover. Inside were neat handwritten notes, all in German. It would take him too long to work out the meanings. He could make out some words, Ehrenabzeichen, Geschaftsfreund, Kontaktperson, Rache. Hoffmann also had some headed paper with the lettering BKA and the black eagle symbol, but the sheets were blank. Below some neatly folded shirts, he found a sheaf of papers held together by spiral binding. There had to be eighty sheets at least and, Blume noted, many of them were in Italian. He glanced quickly through, and saw they referred to the Ndrangheta. He caught some names of major families and that of a heroic magistrate Nicola Gratteri, who was one of the leading experts on the organization. Blume hesitated, then decided to transfer the entire document into his own suitcase. It meant Konrad would find out about this in an hour or two when he went to unpack his bags, but that was fine.
He was looking for a weapon. If Konrad had one, it had to be in here, because he was not carrying one on his person. Blume had carefully and surreptitiously checked from the first moment they had met, and had finally been able to rule out the last possibility of a concealed weapon when Konrad had lifted his feet off the floor in fear of rats, revealing that he wore brown-and-white striped socks, but no ankle holster.
He lifted out three books. One was a guidebook to ‘Kalabrien und Basilikata’, one of the more useless guidebooks crammed with glossy photos of places that, presumably, you would be seeing for yourself. He held the book by its spine and made a fan of the pages and shook, but nothing fell out. There was a novel, Selbs Betrug, again with nothing hidden inside. More interesting, but ultimately unrevealing, was a book called Mafialand Deutschland by Jurgen Roth. Konrad also had a neat little halogen penlight that Blume wasted a few seconds playing with. He reached the bottom of the suitcase without finding anything else of interest. He swiped his hand through the inside pocket, finding nothing more than what seemed to be the torn and crumpled remains of some old-fashioned postcards. One showed the ‘doors of Malta’, another was an image of an English seaside town called Brixham. Judging from the faded turquoise colour of the sea and the single brown car parked in the port, the photo dated from the 1970s. There was a ripped postcard of a caravan site in County Cork in Ireland framed by bright red fuchsia, and a close-up of the Glockenspiel at Marienplatz in Munich and another of the nearby Frauenkirche. There was nothing written on any of them. The postcards were so old that the paper formed tiny fibrous pills as he rubbed his thumb along the edges. They did not fit in with the neatly stacked clothes, the high technology, the cleanliness and order of the bags. He had an idea, which immediately crystallized into a conviction, that the camper van in which he now stood had been to those places in the distant past. These were fragments of Konrad’s memory, pieces he wanted to keep for personal reasons. Something here explained his presence in Italy.
He pulled out the last postcard, which turned out to be ripped vertically in half. He felt around for the other half, but the pocket had given up the last of its treasures. The postcard, more of a holy keepsake, was of the type religious people bought in churches. It showed a vaulted ceiling, a side chapel, a Madonna with a massive crown on her head and the beginnings of a second crown, presumably on the head of the Christ child in her arms. The vertical tear obliterated the rest. But Blume recognized it at once. It was an image of the Madonna of Polsi, also known as the Madonna of the Mountains, the goddess of the Ndrangheta. This was the very Madonna that the bosses lifted on their shoulders and paraded through the steep streets of the village clinging to the sides of Aspromonte. He turned the card over and saw it was signed in a careful childish hand with rounded large characters: Domenico Megale.
Old Megale wrote like a five-year-old. If that was his signature. Blume looked closely at it, bringing it over to the door to get more light. The glistening of the ink, its fresh darkness on the old paper convinced him that Domenico Megale, or someone purporting to be him, had signed the back of this torn Madonna recently. Either Konrad was such a fan of the Mafia boss that he carried around his autograph, or this had some specific purpose. It had to be Konrad’s passport to somewhere, he reasoned. It certified that Konrad was to be allowed to enter somewhere, or was a man to trust. Someone else held the other half of the image, so they could check this was authentic.
And yet, even as he looked at the signature and the torn image, Blume could not believe that Konrad was really an envoy from Domenico Megale. He could not say why he was so certain except that Konrad had little of the perpetrator and much of the victim about him.
He closed the van door again and started putting everything back into the suitcase, including the torn Madonna. When the lanky German came knocking on the hotel door a few hours from now, angrily demanding an explanation for his missing notes, Blume would ask him about it.
Someone hammered on the door he had just closed. Blume snapped shut the case, put it back on the floor, opened the door.
Konrad stood holding two plastic bags. ‘I thought you’d be out front.’
‘No parking space. I tried to use the shade of the trucks to keep the camper van cool.’
Konrad peered in. ‘Are they still there?’
‘No,’ said Blume. ‘There was just the one. It might be near your feet.’
Konrad gave a satisfying leap, like a colt learning to show-jump. Then he got in the driver’s side, slamming the door behind him. ‘Close the door, please.’
‘Did you get that coffee?’ said Blume from behind him. ‘Wait, I’m coming around.’
Blume sat down in the passenger seat and Konrad gingerly handed him the bag. Blume peered inside and pulled out a packet of fruit pastilles and popped one in his mouth. ‘You remembered, well done. I love these sweets. But where’s the coffee?’
‘When I asked for what you said, no one understood me,’ said Konrad.
‘It’s sold with the sweets, in a blue container… never mind.’ He popped another in his mouth, adding synthetic strawberry to the chewy lemon he was already enjoying. ‘What?’ he said to Konrad’s outraged and incredulous expression. ‘I like sweets. I never grew out of it. It’s my only vice. You want one?’ he pulled back the wrapper and held the tube towards Konrad, who recoiled.
‘Did you wash your hands?’
‘You mean the rat? I was kicking at the rat, not tickling its stomach.’
‘European rats carry a flea which carries a bacterium called Bartonella. It causes serious coronary damage.’
Blume popped a green sweet into his mouth, then mimicked a man having a heart attack, clutching at his left bicep, then throat.
‘You’re not funny, Commissioner.’
Arconti was sitting up waiting for her and managed to lift his arm as she entered the room. A box of Kleenex sat by his side.
‘I have a private room, which is good,’ he said, plucking one out and dabbing the side of his mouth. ‘Excuse me if I drool a little.’
Caterina, who did not know the magistrate, was unsure what sort of tone to use. Sensing this, Arconti said, ‘I am going to use tu and call you Caterina. I want you to do the same. Call me Matteo.’
‘Signor Giudice, you are asking too much. I can’t possibly use tu
…’ she trailed off as the magistrate fixed her with a haughty and unblinking stare.
‘I am not that old, despite present appearances,’ said Arconti, his lip curved into a sneering expression of command.
Caterina bristled. ‘I am not using the familiar form with a magistrate I don’t know. You had something to tell me, now tell me.’
The magistrate continued to regard her balefully, but his voice sounded incongruously cheerful. ‘That’s fine by me. Sorry if I embarrassed you. May I call you Caterina?’
‘Yes,’ she conceded.
‘OK, Caterina, now will you please look at this side of my face, the side that doesn’t look like it’s had the mother of all Botox injections? I’m sure the frozen half is fascinatingly creepy, but I have feelings, too.’
She looked at Arconti’s face full on, and saw half his mouth smiling. His right eye was moving up and down and there was a humorous glint in it.
‘They are hopeful that other side will start thawing out within a few days,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Caterina. ‘I was staring, wasn’t I?’ She glanced surreptitiously at the left eye which glared murderously back at her, while Arconti laughed good-naturedly.
‘Never mind. And as for the honorifics due to a magistrate, you can forget that. I’m quitting. I know it was probably cholesterol or cigarettes or something, but I blame my work for this. That and my parents of course, they gave me the genes.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Caterina. She hooked some strands of hair over her ear and turned her head so as to look only at the magistrate’s good side.
‘You’re lovely,’ he said. ‘And now you’re blushingly lovely. I found in the past few days it’s become easier for me to speak my mind. I find you lovely, and the fact that that big brooding bastard of a commissioner didn’t see fit even to mention you in all those hours we were together is…’
‘Hurtful,’ said Caterina.
‘Yes. Blume isn’t always upfront, is he?’
‘Not always,’ she agreed.
‘I think he probably communicates more with you than with me, which is as it should be and as I hope it will be,’ said Arconti. ‘Do you know where he is now?’
‘I’m not fishing for information. I know where he is,’ said Arconti. ‘I’m just wondering if you do.’
‘Yes, I do. I think so. Tell me anyhow.’
‘He’s been recruited by Captain Massimiliani from the DCSA to accompany a German who may or may not have something to do with the Ndrangheta and may or may not be acting as a go-between for the Ndrangheta and the Camorra. He left you here investigating the murder of Matteo Arconti, which, I have to say, still makes a certain impression on me when I say the name. You were briefly under the direction of a magistrate from my office, right?’
‘Can’t quite bring him to mind,’ said Arconti.
‘Natty little beard, young…’
‘Nope. Can’t picture him, but it’s all irrelevant now because the case has floated up to Milan and into the all-devouring embrace of the anti-Mafia magistrates.’
‘You are very well informed, Giudice.’
‘Call me Matteo, and, really, use the familiar form,’ he attempted a smile, and Caterina’s eye was drawn back to the sneer stamped on the left side of his face. ‘I’m informed because I’ve been talking to this Massimiliani I mentioned. He wanted to know a few things about Blume.’
‘When was this?’ asked Caterina. ‘I was given to understand that you were in a coma. In fact I was surprised when the doctor called.’
‘Yes, it was Massimiliani’s idea to say I was totally incapacitated. It was such an opportunity for a plausible lie he simply could not let it pass, even if it served no purpose whatsoever. Not that I’m up and dancing yet, but no coma. Is Blume a principled man?’
Caterina fell silent.
‘If it helps,’ said Arconti with another lopsided grin, ‘I think he is but…’
‘But?’ asked Caterina. ‘What has he done? Or what are you going to ask him to do?’
‘I am not going to ask him to do anything, Caterina. But he took a doubtful initiative. I think his motives were pure — well, not pure but justifiable — and I think he was looking out for me…’
‘Don’t make excuses for him,’ she said.
‘You’re right. Still, I get the feeling that Blume has embraced a philosophy he doesn’t believe in, and it’s led him in the wrong direction. I’d be interested to know whether you are accompanying him on it… You haven’t a clue what I am talking about, have you?’
‘That means he’s on his own.’
‘You are still talking in riddles, Giudice.’
‘When Massimiliani found out I was not a vegetable, he came in to ask me about a confession apparently made by Curmaci’s wife, Maria Itria. When I said I had spoken to the woman but never received any confession, quite the contrary really, he showed me a transcript, adding that copies of the same had been leaked to the press, and one in particular could be tracked back to a policeman in your office who is known to do anything for a bit of cash and is therefore usually kept away from sensitive information…’
‘Rospo,’ said Caterina.
‘So the confession was fed to him, or left where he would find it. Massimiliani anticipated this by conducting his own search, and meanwhile Blume takes a leave of absence…’
‘I understand,’ said Caterina. ‘Blume falsified a confession by a Mafia wife.’
‘Exactly. You’re very quick on the uptake. Massimiliani was full of admiration for this technique, and I think he might really want to recruit Blume whose name, I admit, I am responsible for putting forward. Me, I have my doubts that Blume’s action was such a good idea. He put the woman’s life in direct and immediate danger, and perhaps the lives of her two children.’
‘Blume is a stupid, arrogant bastard,’ said Caterina. ‘He can deal with this himself.’ A thought struck her. ‘I hope you’re not implying I had anything to do with it?’
‘No. I am not accusing you of complicity. I meant what I said: I am not going to be a magistrate after I get out of here. I just want to make things as right as possible on my last case. Has the arrogant bastard been phoning you?’
‘He has been avoiding me more than anything. He’s been avoiding me for a year now, come to think of it. We were supposed to… sorry, you don’t need personal details.’
‘I would like to help.’ The magistrate closed his right eye sympathetically, while his left eye continued to glare at her.
‘Commissioner Blume is a coward,’ said Caterina.
‘That’s very harsh, Inspector.’
‘He has it in his power to do good for himself and others; he refuses to do it through fear, and calls it principle.’
‘He did it to draw Curmaci out. I think he did it for me.’ Arconti dabbed the side of his mouth again and asked Caterina to help him drink a glass of water. It was an awkward moment, and she kept apologizing as the water ran in rivulets down the lifeless left corner of his mouth. All the while, his left side regarded her with loathing for her clumsiness. Eventually, the magistrate had swallowed half a glass and dribbled the other half.
‘That’s fine. I’m used to it already, though the therapist tells me I must never get used to anything. Apparently I must fight like hell to get back to how I was just the other day, which is rather depressing.’ He dabbed his mouth and laid his head back, addressing his thoughts to the ceiling. ‘Blume is treating Curmaci as if he were a common criminal, which is a mistake. It is far easier to isolate a common criminal than one who operates in an organization. When dealing with the Mafia, it is almost impossible for us to restrict the consequences of an operation. I am not sure Curmaci is the sort of prey you’d want to catch. I withheld some information about Curmaci from Blume because…’
‘Because you’re a magistrate and that’s what you guys do,’ said Caterina. ‘You withhold stuff.’
For a moment both sides of Arconti’s face regarded her with the same expression, but then he relaxed. ‘It’s the system, not the people. Magistrate means master. We do the thinking, you do the doing. That’s why you are called agents. It’s not how things work in reality, but it’s what the law says.’
‘Yeah, well… Plenty of magistrates need to be taught stuff by us agents.’
‘True. Look, Blume is making a mistake. I want you to tell him that. For his sake. This is organized crime, not ordinary crime. People like Curmaci aren’t in it for the money. It’s the power, the prestige, the fear they can instill in others, the power to corrupt, the revenge against the classes that kept them down, the ability to design the political landscape. The Ndrangheta is like an order of murderous monks, and Curmaci is one of the high priests.’
The clean white hotel in Positano was set into cliffs overlooking the sea. It was still Campania; the stinking chaos of Naples was only up the road, but they had entered another world.
The girl at the reception desk gave them a bright smile as they entered. When they had filled out the visitor cards, the girl glanced out of the door and saw the camper van.
‘Is that vehicle yours?’ Her smile seemed a little more forced.
Blume jerked a thumb at Konrad, who was looking around the hotel lobby with an appreciative air. ‘Not mine. His.’
The girl nodded as if in understanding. She looked at the ragged backpack drooped off Blume’s shoulder.
‘Is that your luggage?’
‘I have a suitcase in the camper, too heavy to bother moving.’ He patted his backpack appreciatively. ‘Got all I need in here.’
The girl was now avoiding his eyes.
From the front, the hotel seemed like a single-storey house, but the entrance and lobby areas turned out to be the top floor of a building of three levels that developed in a step pattern downwards towards the sea. From a window on the left, they could see the roof tiles of the next two levels down, the lower of which jutted out into what seemed to be empty space. It was as if the entrance lobby where they now stood was the only part of the building sunk into safe ground. Konrad was unabashedly delighted with the place, at one point even nudging Blume and pointing at the vertiginous prospect, as if Blume, who felt a little giddy, could miss it.
Blume was sure the buildings below were actually nestled safely into the rock and resting, at least in part, on solid earth, but he still walked down the hallway with the same cautious tread he used when shuffling up the aisle of an aeroplane in flight, thinking of what would happen if his foot went through the floor. Konrad’s room was in the lowest of the three buildings to the far left, Blume’s in the building above to the right.
Blume was reassured to find the back wall of his bedroom was thick and uneven and it followed the contours of the rock face. It was cold and slightly damp to the touch. He had a shower to wash off the memory of rats. Then he opened his backpack and took out fresh clothes rescued from the suitcase. Fresh, but wrinkled, so he decided to put them on, lie on the bed, force them into some shape against his body.
The wide rectangular window, which swivelled open on a central hinge so that it could complete a 180-degree turn until the outside panes faced in and the inside panes out, framed nothing but sea. He had to stand right next to it and peer downwards to see the cliff into which the building was embedded. He caught a glimpse of a tiny garden set on a narrow ledge fifteen feet below, large enough for maybe one child to play in, a child with very laid-back parents. A ball dropped from his window would bounce once, bang in the centre of the garden, then fly over the cliff edge and down into the sea for ever.
The air that came in was salty but not clammy. The temperature was perfect. A three-masted tall ship lolled halfway to the horizon, headed out west. He opened his mouth wide and with three deep breaths cleared his mind and gratefully exhaled the threatened headache that had been lying in wait all day.
He expected Konrad any moment now, demanding his notes back, accusing him of bad faith. He flicked through the binder he had taken from Konrad’s suitcase, shaking his head at the sheer number of pages in German. Blume’s German was just good enough to see that the texts dealt with the ceremonies, history and beliefs of the Ndrangheta. One or two articles were in English and the rest in Italian. The leaves were filled with marginalia in blue and red. Konrad Hoffmann was a conscientious and fastidious scholar. No surprise there.
Blume took out the small curved black notebook he carried around in his back trouser pocket, which he used only when he had forgotten or deliberately set aside his larger one. His intention was to note down any points of particular interest among Konrad’s papers that caught his eye, but he gave up after ten minutes to focus instead on the image of the torn Madonna signed on the back by Domenico Megale. Konrad’s putative passport to somewhere, a membership card for something. What was the etiquette about ripping a Madonna in hal f? The Ndrangheta initiation ceremony involved the burning of images of the Archangel St Michael. For all he knew the tearing up of a Madonna was fine. But Konrad should not have it in his possession. Far from a voucher or token of safe conduct, the half Madonna was a death sentence that the foolish German was going to deliver with his own hand.
He picked up the reassuringly heavy handset of the bedside phone and called reception. Yes, the girl told him, they did have a fax and of course she would be happy to send something.
Blume took his Samsung and, after moving icons back and forth like he was trying to solve a tile-puzzle from his childhood, finally found the number pad, pressed ‘1’, held it, and waited.
Massimiliani answered on the third ring.
‘Nice of you to call in. Do you know how many times I have tried to contact you?’
‘No, but I’m sure this clever phone can tell me,’ said Blume.
‘It looks like you’re near Positano.’
‘Very clever phone. Actually, we’re there, in the hotel. We took a bit of a detour to Lake Avernus, which was the mad German’s idea. No reason that I can see, except he says he studied Latin once. Do you have a fax number up there?’ asked Blume.
‘A fax… I suppose we must still have one. Hold on.’
Blume heard the plop of a hand being placed over the mouthpiece, as if Massimiliani felt it was important not to let himself be heard calling out to someone in the room about whether they had a fax.
Finally, Massimiliani was back with a number, which Blume noted down. Very much to Massimiliani’s surprise and annoyance, he hung up as soon as he had finished writing.
The girl behind the desk smiled at Blume as he walked over, but the smile faded as Blume slapped the 83-page document on the desk in front of her and said, ‘You told me you had a fax.’
He wrote the DCSA number on the back of the first page. ‘These need to go out immediately.’
The girl picked up the file and seemed to weigh it in her hand. Then, with what sounded like relief, she said, ‘I can’t fax this: it’s in spiral binding.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Blume. ‘You fire up the fax machine or whatever you have to do, and I’ll rip the pages out and hand them to you one by one.’
‘That’ll take hours. Look, when I said we had a fax…’
‘And that you’d be happy to oblige,’ added Blume.
‘Yes, I did say that but…’ The girl picked up the phone and pressed a number. ‘Dad? I need you up here.’
When the hotel owner arrived at reception, he immediately dismissed his daughter with a curt nod of the head. He then turned to Blume with an expression of loathing, which Blume couldn’t justify unless the girl had telepathically communicated his unreasonable fax demands. He began to explain about the fax again when the manager interrupted him.
‘I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you to leave. Both of you.’
Blume turned around, looking for Konrad, but he was alone in the lobby. Through the window of the hotel he could just see a small part of the rear section of the ridiculous old camper van.
‘Your skinny boyfriend isn’t here. You know how I know that?’ said the manager. ‘I know that because he is at this moment lying naked on a ledge beneath our private garden. There have been complaints. Three children and a very respectable woman have seen him so far. Lucky for him my daughter has been spared the obscenity.’
‘Partner, whatever you people call yourselves these days. I should have guessed, two men in a camper. There’s a campsite in Salerno, an hour from here, I’m sure you can park for the night there.’
‘Look, he’s German,’ said Blume in his best soothing voice.
‘Not only that,’ continued the manager, his voice trembling now, ‘he took two of our white towels and a bathrobe with him, when it is expressly written in large red letters on the door that they are not to be removed from the rooms.’
‘He’s still down there?’ asked Blume. ‘On the ledge?’
‘Yes, he is. Unless he’s taken off his bathrobe and dived into the water again. There’s a sign that says no swimming, dangerous currents, but if he can ignore our polite request about the towels, I suppose he’s not going to pay any attention to public notices. He’ll probably dash himself to pieces against the rocks. I’m calling the police.’
Blume pulled out his police badge, placed it on the counter between them, and tapped it with his forefinger, where ‘Commissario’ was written. ‘Before you do that,’ he said, ‘consider that this strange German and I have separate rooms.’
The manager looked at the badge, then picked it up and examined it closely. He looked back at Blume and, for the first time, noticed the fat document on the counter.
‘What is that?’
Blume made a show of checking that they were alone in the lobby, then opened the file, pointing at the German text. ‘These are files belonging to the German. He doesn’t know I have them.’
‘So you two are not…?’
‘I’m investigating him.’
‘Really? Sex crimes?’
Blume shook his head with great sadness and ambiguity.
‘It’s part of an operation. See the number on the back of the first page here? It’s an 06 number to a fax in Rome. It would be good if we could get this to them before the German finds out. The pages will have to be detached leaf by leaf before it can be faxed.’
‘That means he’ll find out,’ said the manager.
‘Can’t be helped,’ said Blume. ‘But once it’s been transmitted to Rome, there’s not much he can do about it. Of course, he mustn’t be allowed to see that you have this.’
‘No, I suppose that makes sense,’ said the manager.
‘Now, as I was about to explain to your beautiful daughter,’ Blume pulled out two fifties from his wallet and put them down on the counter, ‘I realize it will take time and effort, and then there’s the question of the phone bill.’
‘Oh, that,’ said the manager, waving a dismissive hand. ‘We pay a flat rate every two months. We could fax all night without paying a cent more.’
Blume slid the two fifties across the counter. ‘But it’s such a terrible waste of your time. And I am asking for discretion, too.’ He pulled out another two fifties. ‘That one’s for the towels and bathrobe, and to buy some drinks, dinner and ice cream for the lady and the children the German has offended.’
The manager eyed the money and said, ‘Luckily the fax is in the back room, so no one will see. My daughter could do it, if that’s OK, or is it too confidential?’
‘Absolutely fine. I was counting on it, because that way you can give her the two fifties as extra pocket money. The others, of course, are for your guests. I’m paying damages here, and you’re being very helpful.’
The manager hesitated, then, with a look of agony crossing his face, pushed the notes back towards Blume.
‘I am willing to help, but I cannot accept payment for my duties as an honest citizen.’
‘If I have to pick that money off the counter, I’ll charge you with bribery of a public official,’ said Blume.
The manager paled, and his hand froze over the bills, unsure whether to push them away, claw them back, or just let go.
‘I’m kidding,’ said Blume with a laugh.
The manager laughed, too.
‘But I insist,’ added Blume, pushing the notes at him and turning on his heel.
He guessed there was nothing of any use in the series of files being faxed to Rome. They could check if they wanted. The important thing was to seem to be doing something. He returned to his room to wait for Konrad. He opened the window and lay down on his bed, kicking off his shoes and then using his big toes to peel off one sock, then the other, and thought again about the torn Madonna.
His phone vibrated, but did not ring. He must have activated silent mode setting by mistake when he tried to answer it the first time. That would explain all the missed calls.
‘What are you sending us, Blume?’ asked Massimiliani, when he finally relented and answered.
‘Proof that Konrad Hoffmann is interested in the Ndrangheta,’ said Blume.
‘Well, that was pretty well established once his colleagues spotted him leaving the home of an Ndrangheta boss, don’t you think?’
‘Fine, then,’ said Blume. ‘Proof he’s no expert on the Society, despite having met the boss of an important locale in Germany. He’s learning the rudiments of Ndrangheta history and ceremonies. I don’t consider myself a real expert, but I do know that it is a cardinal sin for any member to carry about information on the mysteries and secrets of the Society, so take this as proof he has not been inducted into it. Or maybe he’s doing a double bluff, but I just don’t see it. Konrad is not operating on behalf of the Ndrangheta. I am sure of it.’
‘How did you manage to get these files from him?’
‘I took them. He doesn’t know yet, but he will.’
‘I suppose that’s good work, then. Anything else?’
Blume thought about the torn image of the Madonna, and couldn’t bring himself to tell Massimiliani about it until he himself had a clearer idea. He’d talk to Konrad and see what he could find out. He realized he wanted to give Konrad a chance to explain before reporting to Massimiliani.
‘No, nothing else at this point,’ he said.
‘Keep up the good work,’ said Massimiliani. ‘I think we may be about to learn something this end about Hoffmann and his motivations. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear.’
Blume dropped the phone by his side, put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, trying to work out Massimiliani’s tone. The waves broke against sharp rocks at a regular rhythm forty metres below. Far away, seagulls were kicking up a terrible fuss.
A cooling air swirled around his feet, and he flexed his toes, pulled his trousers up to free his ankles, pulled his polo up, and lay there with his stomach bare. Lovely. It would be nice to have Caterina here now, but it was nice, too, maybe nicer, to be all alone on a large smooth white bed. He could stretch out in an X-shape and catch more of the air coming in, along with the distant noise of people shouting, motorbikes, or maybe outboard motors. The seagulls had stopped their clamour, a plane was passing high overhead, and some insects were clicking and chattering near the window. He flipped the pillow over to the cool side, pressed it against the back of his neck.
Damned phone. It was still under his hand, he picked it up — no, it was the one beside the bed. He rolled over, realizing the air had darkened considerably and grown cooler and wetter. ‘Pronto?’
‘I’ll meet you there,’ said the manager, his voiced hushed with boyish excitement. ‘You’ll see. I’ve sent my daughter down to you. She’ll be there any moment.’
Someone knocked gently on the door, and Blume jumped out of bed and opened the door.
‘My father said to give you this.’ She handed him a neat stack of A4 paper. ‘And to go down to Room 17 immediately. Down those steps.’
The manager was waiting in the corridor below. ‘The German is not back yet but it’s getting dark. He’ll be here any moment,’ he said. He stopped outside Room 17 and opened the door. Beaming from ear to ear at his own cleverness, he then placed the spiral-bound notes in Blume’s hands. ‘I managed to get them all back into the spine. My fax machine is also a photocopier, so I thought I could copy them for you as I sent them, see? Then you can put this back in his room and the German will be none the wiser.’
Not bad, thought Blume, though he did not like the idea of the hotel manager being in too much on this, and definitely did not want him to watch as he opened Konrad’s suitcase and slipped the document back in. He nodded, took the file and closed the door in the eager manager’s face.
The manager knocked immediately.
‘No,’ said Blume. ‘You can’t come in here.’
The manager’s voice, hoarse with panic and excitement, came from behind the door. ‘The German’s walking up the steps. I just caught a glimpse of him. He’ll come in the door at the end of the corridor. It’ll take him only seconds… He’s going to catch us… Wait.’
Blume heard the manager move away from the door and his footfalls pounding down the corridor. He took his time even so, placing the document carefully in the position he remembered finding it. If Konrad walked in, well, it would be embarrassing, that was all. He closed the suitcase, walked quickly to the door, surveyed the room once more.
He slipped out of the room as the manager came running up the hall, breathless.
‘I pulled hard at the door so he couldn’t open it from the outside. Really hard like it was locked, not like someone was pulling it. He’ll have gone up the cliff path to get in, and then he’ll come down the stairs… that’s him. Quick, we can get out here.’
He ran down the corridor again. Blume followed reluctantly, and they exited the door the manager had been blocking. They ascended the steps back up to the parking area, past the camper van, and back into the hotel. The daughter and her father exchanging theatrical glances, Blume went back down to his room, dissatisfied.
Konrad had been willing to leave the documents unattended for hours. It wasn’t unreasonable to conclude that he didn’t care too much if they were discovered, which meant they had no real importance. Or, at the risk of being too Freudian, it meant Konrad unconsciously wanted them discovered. Maybe he wanted someone to stop him. But from doing what?
A few minutes later, Konrad, his raw neck and head sticking out of the white cotton bathrobe, knocked on the door to announce, much to Blume’s surprise, that he had made reservations for dinner. He said he would take a quick shower and meet him in the lobby in fifteen minutes.
‘Where are we going?’
‘A place called I Partenopei,’ said Konrad, making a good job of the pronunciation. ‘Recommended by the hotel manager who looks at me funny.’ Konrad lowered his voice, ‘ Schwul, definitely. Despite the daughter.’
Blume went up to the lobby to wait where the manager, full of solicitation and goodwill, immediately informed him he had ordered them a cab, even though it was only ten minutes on foot.
‘Far too dangerous that road in the dark,’ the manager said.
The taxi turned out to have a fixed rate. Fifteen euros there and back. ‘Call here when you want him to come down and pick you up.’
‘That’s not a taxi,’ said Blume.
‘Not exactly,’ agreed the manager. ‘It’s a sort of courtesy car for some of the hotels on this side of the headland.’
‘A courtesy car is free.’
‘I’ll pay, of course,’ said the manager quickly. ‘It’s not as if you haven’t already been generous.’
‘I’ll get the German to pay. He can pay for dinner, too.’
Konrad arrived wearing a wide-collar paisley-design shirt, a crumpled linen jacket and drainpipe black jeans. Adidas running shoes and a powerful stench of Denim aftershave or something else that belonged to the 1970s completed his get-up. His hair, still wet, was sleeked back into a ducktail.
The restaurant was perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the harbour. Looking down, Blume could see their table reflected in the dark water and the waiter coming towards them like a black shadow moving just beneath the surface. Running the length of the wall was a fish tank with crabs and lobsters, the pincers disabled by plastic cuffs, and red reef mullets, ready to be netted and fried without needing to be gutted.
They ate well, but mostly in silence. Konrad, who said swimming had made him hungry, announced that from the point of view of toxins, he had more confidence in the produce of the sea than the land. He had swordfish steaks. Blume, being adventurous, went for aubergine with chocolate and peppered mussels, and they both chose acqua pazza as their first course.
The restaurant was full for a Monday night. Blume glanced at the swarthy bulky men sucking at their fingers and reaching across each other as they stretched to help themselves from central platters of fish. At another table a woman bedecked in gold jewels and wearing a white tracksuit was explaining to the waiter that the roly-poly kid in the blue football strip of Napoli sulking beside her had coeliac disease and would die if any pasta passed his mouth, but he could, and did, eat meat and fried potatoes, though he might possibly be allergic to fish. Five youths at another table, all in tracksuits, drank limoncello and kept a careful eye on Konrad and Blume.
‘I’m glad to see you do eat,’ said Blume. ‘You even seem to be enjoying yourself.’
‘There is something liberating about this place.’
‘This restaurant, the Amalfi coast, or southern Italy?’
‘All together. I am not a romantic anarchist. I am, after all, a policeman. But there is great freedom in the absence of rules. And I feel like we have travelled a great distance, even though it was only a few hours from Rome this morning. That seems so long ago.’
‘The south is separate from the north,’ said Blume. ‘The broken roads and railways turn journeys down here into tiring odysseys. Even when southerners speak standard Italian, they use a different grammar. Everything is said in the remote tense. That has to mean something.’
‘It means they still use the Latin past tense,’ said Konrad. ‘It is very fascinating to me.’
‘If it were up to me,’ said Blume, ‘I’d give this region back to the Spanish, the north back to the French and the Austrians, and Sicily back to the Arabs.’
‘And so, logically, you would give Rome and central Italy back to the Pope.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Blume. ‘I couldn’t do that.’
‘Because he’s German.’
Konrad, recovering his confidence in the purity of the produce, ordered sospiri di limoni for dessert. Blume asked for coffee.
‘I am paying for this of course,’ said Konrad. ‘You are my guest.’ He called over the waiter and got the bill, scribbled on a piece of graph paper.
Blume shrugged. ‘It’s the other way around if anything, but you can still pay.’
Without quite knowing why he was doing it, especially after he had made such an effort to cover his tracks, Blume now found himself saying, ‘Konrad, listen to me: if you’re thinking of going down to Calabria, don’t. They don’t want visitors. That would definitely include a federal policeman from Germany.’
‘Why do you say I am going to Calabria?’
‘Because you are.’
‘Just because I met Domenico Megale…’
‘I saw that torn Madonna with Megale’s signature. Take that look off your face, you left your bags unattended in the camper van, and then your room. Some part of you wants to be stopped. A well-hidden sane part.’
Konrad’s eyes were shining. Perhaps it was the drink. ‘I have a private matter to attend to. It is not police work. I would be grateful to be left alone,’ he said.
‘Is that icon of the Madonna some sort of code? What’s the idea, someone down there has the other half of the torn Madonna, you fit the two halves together, they see Megale’s signature, they know you are good and true?’
Konrad stared into the middle distance avoiding Blume’s sympathetic gaze and struggling to compose his features into an expression of indifference.
‘Are you planning to kill someone, Konrad? Or are you trying to get yourself killed? Or both? All I can say is you are making a bad choice, and I am giving you a chance not to make it…’
Blume stopped, as the waiter returned.
‘If I make a bad choice, there is another universe in which I make a good choice,’ said Konrad. ‘I believe in multiverse theory.’
‘That’s handy. Meanwhile, back in this universe, the waiter’s just asked us if you would prefer to pay in cash.’
‘Cash. The credit card machine is mysteriously “broken”.’
‘I don’t have enough cash.’
‘Fuck it,’ said Blume. He pulled out two fifties from the envelope Massimiliani had given him and paid for the meal.
Blume was lying in bed, his stomach heavy with fish, searching for the willpower to read through Konrad’s notes when his Samsung vibrated.
‘Massimiliani, I suppose?’
‘Of course it’s me. I hope you’re not using the phone to call other people.’
‘No. What do you want?’
‘You can forget about Hoffmann.’
Blume sat up straight, causing some of the papers to slip off his bed. ‘No! I was just getting somewhere with him. He has a torn Madonna. I think it’s a pass of some sort.’
‘Sorry, I’m not following. Are you talking about some immediate threat?’
‘No,’ said Blume. ‘I was… never mind.’
‘Good. We’ll pick you up in the morning, both of you. Hoffmann’s superiors have finally worked out the reason for his trip.’
‘They won’t tell us yet. They say they need to check up on one or two final details. Personally, I think they are embarrassed at having overlooked something obvious, or maybe they have discovered Hoffmann was working for one internal department, which neglected to tell the other. It’s their problem, not ours.’
‘Just like that? We no longer care about Konrad?’
‘We never did care about him. We cared about what he might do, but it seems he’s not going to do anything that bothers us. He’s not armed, is he?’
‘See? It’s not a serious matter, at least that’s what they say.’
‘You suddenly trust the Germans?’
‘I always trusted my friend and associate Weissmann.’
‘But you don’t know what it is they have found out?’
‘I am afraid not. I expect them to tell us tomorrow. It’s rather late in the day now. They want to talk to Hoffmann himself beforehand. In fact, they are probably talking to him now.’
‘OK,’ said Blume slowly, concentrating on keeping the anger out of the two syllables. It was clear the Hoffmann threat, and hence Blume’s contribution, had never been taken very seriously. He knew all along the mission was not crucial, but this was humiliating.
‘What was that you said about a Madonna?’
‘I’ll tell you that later, sometime tomorrow. After you’ve heard from the Germans.’
‘Tell me now, Blume.’
‘It’s late. It’s a complicated thing and you just told me it doesn’t matter anyhow,’ said Blume, hanging up on Massimiliani for the second time that evening.
Blume picked up the bedside phone and dialled Room 17, and was quite surprised when the inside line did what it was supposed to do and put him in contact with Konrad, who sounded as if he had been asleep.
‘Curmaci,’ said Blume. ‘Agazio Curmaci. I don’t quite know why, but that’s who you are interested in. So am I. That’s why they threw us together. If he’s your enemy, maybe I can help. If he’s your friend, then… I don’t know. You don’t want him as a friend.’
Konrad said nothing.
‘Do you know what sort of man he is?’ said Blume.
‘Yes,’ said Konrad quietly, his voice muted with sleep. ‘I know what sort of a man he is. I think I was just dreaming about him now. Go to sleep and we can talk in the morning.’
But Blume no longer felt as tired as before. He retrieved the fallen papers from around his bed and started looking through them. Konrad had copied out songs, dialect words, stories, history and even recipes connected with the Society. Occasionally, a word was underlined here, an exclamation mark added there. Finally, Blume found a page with underlining and translations of dialect words on which Konrad had committed himself to a comment, although it turned out to be no more than a hastily scrawled ‘ sehr interessant? ’.
It was a description, no doubt out of date, of the protocol for making contact with an ’ndrina that did not know you. Was that Konrad’s plan?
Q. Are you a wolf, a bee or a goat dropping?
A. I am a wolf who will devour you, a bee who will sting you, and a goat dropping that follows you.
Q. Do you walk, sir, above the road or below it?
A. I walk both above and below the road, for I am an artful scoundrel.
‘Oh, no you’re not, Konrad,’ muttered Blume. He flicked through till his eyes landed on more marking by Konrad, this time at the top of the story of Osso, Carcagnosso and Matrosso. Blume knew the legend. It was just the sort of thing an impressionable German like Konrad..
His phone, his real one, not the one supplied by Massimiliani, was ringing. Wearily, he got off the bed, half hoping it would stop before he got there, knowing full well who it would be. He hesitated; the caller, Caterina of course, was insistent; she was in a fury with him by the time he answered.
‘Apart from everything else,’ said Caterina, following up her long opening sentence in which she had called him a coward, a sneak, an infame, a liar, childish, stubborn and uncaring, ‘you are a fool.’
Now would be a good time to put down the phone, thought Blume, but then Caterina mentioned she had been to see Magistrate Arconti.
‘He’s talking, and he’s talking about you. He’s also talking about a mysterious confession made by Curmaci’s wife.’
‘Ah,’ said Blume.
‘Captain Massimiliano Massimiliani appreciated the subterfuge. Is that what you want, to earn the approval of people like him?’
‘What’s wrong with him? You haven’t even met him.’
‘Massimiliani’s father was involved in the Borghese coup attempt.’
‘That was his father,’ said Blume with an authority he did not own, since Caterina’s revelation was news to him.
‘But you didn’t know that, did you? You were so anxious to get away and play boy soldiers that you did not even question him, look him up or check him out like I did. Since when do you trust some creep from SISDE or AIMI or whatever they call themselves these days?’
‘He’s probably listening, you know.’
‘Yeah, I can smell him from here,’ said Caterina. ‘Did he give you a Masonic handshake, Alec? What lodge will you be joining, P3, P4, the Circle of the Illuminated Thieves?’
‘Now you’re exaggerating. Maybe Italy needs people like him now,’ said Blume.
‘No, it doesn’t, but people like him need errant fools like you to follow their directions. Gallivanting about as if anyone would ever take you seriously. A middle-aged homicide cop pretending to be fifteen years younger and playing at secret agent.’
‘You can’t talk to me like that.’
‘Shut up, Alec. I mean… shut up. Christ. Put this right or forget about me ever speaking to you again.’
‘Put what right?’
‘You’ve put that woman’s life in danger, just to place yourself at the centre of an affair that does not properly concern you. Tell Massimiliani to deal with it differently and you come home. But first, make sure that woman and the people around there don’t get hurt.’
‘So you think she deserves help, sheltering her criminal husband, nurturing criminal children, hanging out with other criminal women, the sorelle d’omerta as they call themselves, perpetuating the Society, obstructing inquiries, intimidating the few good citizens left? Whatever bad comes to her, she had coming.’
‘Including death? You’d be all right with that?’
‘If she dies, it won’t be by my hand, but by the hand of someone she knows, someone who will have more innocent blood than hers on his conscience. Someone whose murdering of innocent people she accepted, hid and respected.’
‘Alec,’ said Caterina, disorienting him by suddenly softening her tone, ‘you don’t have to talk tough like that to me. I know you.’
‘Then you should know these are my opinions.’
‘No, they are not. And even if they are, I happen to know your opinions don’t always match your feelings.’
‘I hate it when you try and persuade yourself that I am what you would like me to be. Next time I fail to live up to your expectations, don’t come looking for me.’
In the old days when he was receiving the silent treatment from a girl on the phone, he used to be able to hear the pops, gurgles and whooshing sound of the telegraph wires punctuated by the sighs and breaths and involuntary voiced murmurs that allowed him to judge the mood and seriousness of his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend on the end of the line. But digital technology, the source of much evil in the world, he felt, had killed that, too. A high-pitched whine just within his audible range suggested the connection was still live, but the silence from the other side was total. He could not analyse her silences or anticipate her responses. Or maybe it was just Caterina and digital phones had nothing to do with it.
‘How’s your head?’ she asked eventually.
‘Yes, Alec, your head. The large hairy thing full of evil thoughts that sticks out of your collar. The part of you that aches and talks about itself all the time.’
‘Fine. Mostly. I was on my way to a headache twice today, but it passed both times.’
‘When will you be home?’
‘I don’t know and I can’t say. Maybe as soon as tomorrow.’
‘I hope so.’
After he had hung up and stuffed his phone under the pillow, Blume found he was unable to banish his thoughts, concentrate or properly distract his mind. In the end he read the story of Osso, Matrosso and Carcagnosso, until he felt his eyes close.
The Three Knights
© Domenech K. amp; Nistico G., 2007. Die Heldenunternehmungen der drei Ritter. Vorwort In Lange Kunst Vol I (3): 3-15. Frankfurt. Germany. Fachverlag Klett-Vauk.
In that place where now stands the Mosque of Al-Asqa in the sacred city of Jerusalem, a band of warriors, founded by twenty-five good men who took up arms only with reluctance, established their seat of command. The band was known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. We remember them today as the Knights Templar.
They wore snow-white mantles displaying a scarlet cross, symbol of our Saviour Jesus Christ, symbol also of their faith and their fair-dealing in business and of their readiness to afford protection, even at the cost of blood, for those who had the humility and wisdom to seek their help. Even when their help was not sought directly, the knights sacrificed their own comfort to protect the pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land across desert kingdoms under the cruel and heathen rule of Islam.
The first Grand Master of the Order was Hugh De Paysn, cousin and vassal of the Count of Champagne; the second-in-command was Goffredo di Saint Omer. The committee in charge was made up of nine Knights, all of whom had taken a vow of poverty. They defended the Latin states of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, conquered by the valour of Franks and Normans. The Knights Templar were officially recognized as an Order of the Church by Pope Innocent II in 1139. This Pope, from the Papareschi family in Rome, grew up in Trastevere where he founded a church now called Santa Maria, a place that has remained holy through the ages.
The Knights Templar continued for about 150 more years until, on Friday 13 October, 1307 Clement V ordered the dissolution of the Order and the arrest of the members. Dozens of Knights Templar were burned at the stake in Paris.
The surviving knights dispersed and fled to all corners of the world. Three blessed brother Knights fated to live an accursed life, Osso, Matrosso and Carcagnosso, travelled together, and on the road they met a tall man with a diamond where his left eyeball should have been. The man, an ageless descendant of Balqis, Queen of Sheba, gave them spools of magical thread. Anyone who touched the threads and looked upon another man would see into the blackness of his heart, and anyone who touched the threads and looked up to the sky would see all the evil deeds mankind had yet to commit. For, as the Jews believe and as it is written in the Targum Sheni to the Book of Esther, the fabrics of the land of Balqis were spun from the fibres of plants that date from the Creation and were watered by a river that ran from the Garden of Eden.
The brother Knights brought the threads to an old spinster who wove them into five fine cloaks. The Knights then put the spinster to the sword so that she might never tell of their secret. Each of the brothers took one cloak for himself. Osso, the eldest brother, gave the fourth to the poet Dante to accompany him safely into exile from treacherous Florence, as well as on his long voyage into hell, purgatory and heaven. Who wore the fifth cloak remains unknown to this day.
Osso, Matrosso and Carcagnosso, deeply touched by the glimpses of future evil deeds, fashioned a fine ship with three masts of living trees and five sails and travelled across the world seeking to warn peoples of coming calamities. They travelled to the noble races of the Americas, the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas, and forewarned them of the terrible fates that would befall them when the next white men arrived in tall ships.
The people listened to the Knights, and their warning was passed from generation to generation. But those peoples who forgot their traditions, also forgot the story of the Knights, so that when the time of the catastrophe came, they were unprepared.
The Knights then performed many acts of courage, and their fame spread far and wide. They travelled to Tibet, Samarkand and prospered for some time in the city states of the Hanseatic League.
Finally, wearied of travel, Osso, Matrosso and Carcagnosso sought peace and tranquillity in the Holy Kingdom of Spain. But their renown travelled faster than they, and ere they had set foot in Spain, they had already become hateful to the vengeful nobles of the Kingdom. Unjustly accused of ignoble deeds against a maiden of Spanish royal blood, the three Knights were forced to flee the Kingdom. They settled on the island of Favignana, north-west of Sicily, opposite the ancient city of Trapani.
There, the three brother Knights decided to go their separate ways. Osso, who dedicated his life to the Lord Jesus Christ, chose to travel the narrow body of water to Sicily and settle there. Carcagnosso, beloved of Saint Peter, travelled the length and breadth of Italy and, finding that Naples was the most beautiful of all the cities he had seen in his long travels, chose it for his home. Matrosso, who turned all his prayers to the Archangel Michael, crossed the Straits of Messina to the region of Calabria, and there he made his home among the proud descendants of the Normans.
Each Knight brought with him a code of honour. As they took up their new and final abodes, they enshrined these codes of honour among their followers, who formed societies of honour. Osso’s Honoured Society became known as the Mafia, which means virtue; Carcagnosso formed the Most Excellent Reformed Society, the Camorra; Matrosso formed the Society of Valorous Men, the Ndrangheta.
Some say the cloaks were unravelled and the magic threads distributed to the most faithful, others that they are still worn by a secret elect who may be seen by those who have eyes to look…
The story of Osso, Matrosso and Carcagnosso, his father had told him, was like the story of Jesus Christ. It was absolutely true, and where it evidently was not true, it contained symbolic truth. Symbols were to be accepted in absolute solemnity. Names were sacred, oaths even more so.
His father told him variations of the Osso, Matrosso and Carcagnosso story, some of which he already knew, others he had not heard. Each variation, his father explained, was a possibility, and each was spoken with reverence. Sometimes there were deeper truths, sometimes there were pieces of history left out or suppressed. Osso, Matrosso and Carcagnosso, if not Templars, if not the three founders of the three honoured Societies, may well have been Norman brother knights. Calabrians were often Greek, his father explained, and some of them, the weakest, were of Byzantine stock. Others, whose hard blue eyes could be seen among the leaders of so many of the top families, were the direct descendants of the Norman conquerors.
‘In the year 999, a handful of men from the north, the Normans, came down and seized control of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily,’ his father explained one night during a brief visit. ‘They expelled the Lombards, the Byzantines and the Arabs, and commanded with an iron fist. But they did not disdain the people of Apulia, Basilicata, Campania, Sicily and Calabria, a people whose exceptional beauty was the result of mixing the blood of the red Germanic Lombards with the dark-skinned Arabs and Africans, and the pampered Greeks, Albanians, Illyrians and descendants of the ancient Romans. The Normans and then their descendants melted into the local people, but without losing any of their fierceness. They set out to conquer the Holy Land, while their cousins on the Atlantic coast of France, lacking land and with warrior fathers who did not want to pass on any of their wealth even to their own sons, conquered the British Isles. Ours is warrior blood. That, son, is why your eyes are blue and why I named you Ruggiero and your baby brother Roberto. In history, the Norman Robert was earlier, but Roger was greater. You are named after the Norman Knight who created the Kingdom of the South. Learn about him.’
Ruggiero had done as his father asked, reading books he barely understood, then reading them again. He even read three in English. And when his father returned six months later, he was dying to show off his newly acquired knowledge, but his father asked him nothing. A full year later, he appeared one night at the doorway of Ruggiero’s bedroom and returned to the subject.
‘Your mother tells me you have been reading those books about the Normans. What have you learned?’
Ruggiero started listing the dates and places of the battles through southern Italy, the leading knights, the Norman families, and their long war with the Byzantines, the Pope and the Lombards. His father listened, nodded, asked him some dates, corrected a few things, and gave him no praise.
The following night, he asked him what else he had learned, and Ruggiero spoke of the conquest of the Holy Land, the Italians and Normans in Antioch and Jerusalem, all the way up to the final defeat of the last of the Norman kings in Benevento.
On the third and final night before he left for Germany, his father again asked him what he had learned, but Ruggiero had come to the death of Conradin and the books his father had given him went no further.
‘So, what did you learn?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I learned what sort of people they were.’
‘And what was that?’ asked his father.
‘They were men of faith, who believed in Jesus Christ and the Holy Apostolic Church, but they still went to war against the Pope.’
‘Excellent. Even as they held him captive, they begged his forgiveness. What else?’
‘Brother fought brother, cousin fought cousin. And they had a grand council. When they had a common enemy, like the emperor of Constantinople, they came together. But they also fought each other, and sometimes even in the middle of a joint operation one family would try to gain the lands of another.’
‘Yet each battle was eventually resolved by the other families if ever a dispute threatened to undermine their right to rule southern Italy,’ said his father.
Six months later his father, speaking to him after dinner while his mother was upstairs with the newborn Robertino, said, ‘I will not sit by your bedside and tell you stories any more. You are too old for that.’
Ruggiero nodded, sad and pleased.
‘But a little modern history won’t hurt. I’m talking about the 1960s, a long time before you were born, but a period which to many people still seems like yesterday. It was a period of change and internal war. Since then, we have become ever stronger, which is only natural. Do you know why?’
Ruggiero rightly considered this a rhetorical question and said nothing.
‘Threats and restrictions are what make us strong. Threats above all, provided they are external and not internal. Outside enemies make us strong. Restrictions and obedience also make us strong. Someday, it may be good to find yourself facing a powerful enemy, especially one who thinks he knows your weaknesses. And you will have a weakness. We all do.’
‘So how do you stop them from exploiting it?’
‘You change it at the last moment. The regular drunkard who turns up for a fight with his mind alert, focused and sober, the coward who puts his life on the line, the miser who throws away all his wealth to confound his enemy, the joker who turns deadly serious — these are the people who suddenly emerge victorious. But first you need to see where your weakness is. For this you need an enemy, because your enemy will always be nearer the truth in their opinion of you than you are yourself.’
‘What’s your weakness, Papa?’
‘Find out your own first before you ask me, and find it from someone who hates you.’
‘Is that how you found out yours?’
‘I had many weaknesses, but I have worked for years in a foreign and hostile land in the company of someone who hates me more with each passing day, and that has kept me alive, alert and strong.’
‘Are you talking about Enrico’s dad? I thought our families were close.’
‘We are. But let me tell you a story about Tony. In some ways, it is a story that redounds to his honour. I want you to know it so that you understand something of the character of the man. I also want you to imagine how it would feel to be the enemy of a man such as this. Are you following me?’
‘In 1963, a faction of the Society was still aligned with the Communist Party. This was because the party was not in government and was regarded as being a sort of anti-state. All the Society’s income came from providing business protection and seizing hostages, or kidnap victims as the press always called them, from the wealthy north for distribution to the people of our land. So the melandrini, the Ndrangheta gangs, were doing in deed what the Communists only promised. That year, a feud broke out between the Mazzaferro and Neri families over the control of the bergamot orange plantations of Reggio Calabria. The Mazzaferro represented an old version of the Society based on ideas of socialism and land reform. Not collectivization or real socialism, since there always have to be landlords and tenants, but they wanted more social justice. The Neri represented a new right-wing version of the Society. In those days, they were very interested in what was going on in Greece where the colonels had taken power. The Neri got mixed up with monarchists and fascists and princes of the Church, as well as magistrates, Christian Democrats, and even elements of the armed forces and police. It was a strange time of strange ideologies, none of which survived for long.
‘The feud between these two families would not usually involve people from our side of the country. But one family from our area, the Megales, with great strategic acumen, decided to offer assistance to the Neris. They sent an expeditionary force up the mountain to help them. So it was that one night in May 1964, a group led by Domenico Megale — you know of him now as Megale u Vecchiu because he is old, but then he was still in his prime, and everyone called him Mimmo instead of Domenico. They say he brought with him his son, then twelve years of age, to show the people of the town that even if his son was slow in his speech and thought, he was fast and merciless in his action. I’m not sure if that’s true.’
‘You mean Zio Pietro?’ Ruggiero tried to picture Enrico’s truculent and silent uncle as a boy, but couldn’t.
‘Yes, Zio Pietro. Now, where was I?’
‘Domenico Megale was leading an expeditionary group,’ said Ruggiero.
‘Right. Domenico Megale and his group breached the defences of the Mazzaferro fort, which was nothing more than a drystone house on the slopes of Aspromonte, and destroyed its inhabitants, wiping out an entire branch of the Mazzaferro. That night of slaughter ended the feud, and relegated that branch of the Mazzaferro family, or what was left of it, to obscurity.’
‘But the Mazzaferro are still in charge in Gioioso Ionico.’
‘Different clan, same surname. Don’t interrupt,’ said his father. ‘When Megale and the Neri squad left, there were twelve males and eight females left dead, their ages ranging from seven to seventy-seven. Four more were seriously injured, three of them maimed for life, and if you look you may well see one of them, disfigured of body, who remains among us yet, pardoned and reinstated by Basile himself.’
‘Was Basile involved in any of this?’
‘Basile was the deal-maker and peacekeeper. He did not take sides, which is his speciality. He never takes sides until the dust settles, and is always ready to mediate. Basile’s only interest is this area, and now he has this gelateria… You interrupted me again.’
‘That’s OK. It means you’re listening. Some of the very oldest were left alive, to bury their dead and bear witness. A beautiful young mother, whose husband was away at the time, was also allowed to live. But perhaps it was better she had died, for her child of one year, her only son, disappeared during that night of slaughter. After the feud was declared officially closed, the woman’s husband, who lived in northern exile, like so many of us, was allowed to return. He was supposed to comfort his wife and give her new sons to help her overcome her grief, but this never happened. The body of the child was never returned. It was given to understand that a picciotto who had snatched the abandoned child from his cradle as the mother cowered in the next room lost his life soon after the end of the feud.
‘Some said that it had not been a lowly picciotto but the chief sgarrista himself, Domenico Megale, who was in that room. And some also said that he had held the infant in his hands, ready to dash its head against the wall, but overcome by sudden compassion, had spared the child’s life. But Domenico Megale never spoke of it, and no one dared to ask him, and the memory of the bloody night began to fade.
‘The young mother never had another child, and for years she never mentioned what happened that night. In 1982, when I was a young man hardly older than you, the mother had a vision. Her child, now a young man of nineteen years, she claimed had appeared to her in a dream, accompanied by the Blessed Gioacchino da Fiore dressed in rags.
‘Most people felt great sympathy for the woman, who was now leaving child-bearing age behind her. People said her dream had been sent as a message of farewell to her youth and fertility. As it was evidently her grief that was speaking to her, she was treated with the utmost kindness by the town. But their patience was soon exhausted as she continued in her delusions. As the years passed, she continued to report that her son, now aged twenty, now twenty-one, and now twenty-five, was visiting her while she slept, sometimes accompanied by the Madonna, sometimes by Padre Pio but more often by the Blessed Gioacchino da Fiore. She began to make pilgrimages to the town of San Giovanni in Fiore to visit the Abbey of Florens, and when her story became known, the monks there did what they could to console her and pray for her, even holding a special mass one night in November.
‘Then, in 1989, she did the unthinkable and went to the Carabinieri and denounced Megale for the events of a quarter of a century earlier. She did so at five o’clock in the evening, walking straight up to the barracks under the eyes of the whole town.’
Ruggiero blinked his eyes in acknowledgment of the sense of shock that must have been felt.
‘Now it turns out,’ continued his father, ‘that for all the rumours, no one had ever really asked her about what happened that night in 1964. Sometimes people prefer not to remember. And yet, this forgetting was also the right thing to do. The slaughter that night was a terrible act, but it had its historical causes and necessities. It was also the beginning of a restructuring and a reexamination of conscience that has served everyone well since.
‘The people of the town were sickened by this woman’s blatant act of treachery, but they were also dismayed in their hearts because over the years her talk of seeing her son in the company of saints had assured people that the child was at peace with God, and was accompanying his mother through the rest of her life, ageing with her, until she, too, would be at peace. But when the benighted old woman went to the Carabinieri, she told them her son had been seized but not killed by Domenico Megale. She said that when Domenico burst into her bedroom, she was suckling the child. He was so struck by the sanctity and tenderness of the image that he found himself rooted to the spot, or so she claimed. She approached him and offered the child in exchange for her own life and a pledge to remain silent for ever. She then commended her infant into the hands of Domenico and said he was now the father. She told the Carabinieri that Domenico Megale had taken her child and left. Upon leaving, he had warned her never to come looking for the child, but now she was breaking that pledge.
‘The woman’s husband went to Megale and begged forgiveness. The people in the village were instructed to shun the deluded woman, but she seemed not to notice. A local magistrate opened an investigation, letting it be known that he did so with reluctance. He sent two young Carabinieri to ask Megale about the night in question. Megale told them he had no memory of the night, lost in the mists of time. The case was archived.
‘Then in 1990, the woman invited in television reporters. You probably know the show, Chi l’ha visto, which is dedicated to tracking down missing persons.’
‘It’s still on,’ said Ruggiero.
‘Back then it was a new show, presented by an interfering albino bitch called Donatella Raffai. They sent down a team of reporters who interviewed the mother. Now she aggravated the situation by speaking far too freely about the night of the massacre, naming names and describing the abduction of her son, and saying how she was warned never to look for him. The national newspapers took up the story, and reporters swarmed the streets until our dignified reticence, as well as some low-key resistance that took the form of attacks on their vehicles and equipment, persuaded the vultures to fly back to Rome and Milan. The husband, now in his late sixties, asked permission of Don Matteo to divorce; it was not given, which was unlucky for him.
‘The woman, prodded and urged by the vile reporters who were too abject to visit us, went up to Rome. There, in the studio, she allowed them to show the face of the man she claimed was her son, a man whom they had covertly filmed as he went about his business in the village, and a man whose face was familiar to everyone. That man was called Tony, the younger of Megale’s sons.’
‘Enrico’s father,’ said Ruggiero.
‘When he saw his Tony on television like that, Megale, who around this time people started calling u Vecchiu because by then he had lost his wife to cancer — same as would happen later to his daughter-in-law — and looked far older than he really was, sued the television station for defamation, and the case dragged on for five years before ending in a settlement in his favour. Around this time, too, Communism collapsed in Europe and Megale foresaw the great fortune to be made from buying property and businesses in East Germany, and moved with his younger son, Tony, to Dusseldorf, where there was already a small Calabrian presence. He left Pietro here. As for the case against RAI Television, the judges declared that Tony had become an object of hatred for a woman devastated by loss and childlessness. She stood on the steps of the court with a placard on which she had written ‘No Hatred Just a Mother’s Love’. And the newspapers ran with that line, of course. God, they loved it. After the scandal had died down, Tony married a girl, Angela Mancuso, who came from an important family settled in Milan. Six months after, baby Enrico arrived, but Tony was already in Germany with his old man. He came down for the christening, though. His next visit was for Angela’s last day on this earth and the funeral two days later. Cancer like wildfire through her body. I remember seeing her, thin, yellow, suddenly old. When she died, Zio Pietro and Zia Rosa decided they would take care of the baby.
‘A few months later, the ignorant old woman, uncaring about Tony’s bereavement, crawled out into the open again to say Enrico was her grandson. Encouraged no doubt by a reporter, because she could not even read and knew nothing about these things, she demanded a DNA test, which Domenico, Tony, Pietro and Zia Rosa all turned down with contempt.
‘By now, the old woman’s husband was having difficulty living in the town. His failure to exercise his authority over the woman was punished, so they say, by seven zaccagnate on his chest and shoulders, his age being taken into consideration, followed by expulsion. He stayed in the village with his wife, a humiliated being despised by all. Can you remember what happened in the end?’
Ruggiero remembered it as if it was yesterday. ‘The woman and her husband were both stabbed to death on the same night. Him on the way back from the bar, her in her bed. It was in September, not long after the Feast of the Madonna di Polsi. School had just reopened.’
‘Almost correct. The old man was shot at close range with a low-velocity bullet. Just one small entry wound at the back, no sign of violence from the front. But the woman was stabbed repeatedly in the belly and groin as she lay in her bed. The killer opened her up and tore her very insides out. It was a cruel thing. There was a big funeral and, even though they had no family, everyone turned up, including Tony Megale. He had recently returned from Germany. He had come home several days before the killing took place to celebrate the Madonna di Polsi — and visit Enrico, of course. He spent a day in custody being questioned. On the same day he was released, he asked me if I would join them in Germany, and I did.’
‘Did he ever tell you anything about his mother?’
‘So now you think that that woman was his mother?’
‘Wasn’t she? Isn’t that what you just told me?’
‘Draw your own conclusions quietly, decide on your own course of action quietly, act quietly.’
‘So you never asked Tony?’
‘You are still asking too directly. I have never even spoken of the story to anyone until this moment. In Germany, u Vecchiu treated me well, but I soon saw it would be necessary for me to pursue a different path from Tony, and that is what I have done. Our paths often cross, but I thought we had succeeded in dividing our responsibilities with respect and without rancour. I may have been wrong.’
‘Have you and Enrico’s dad fallen out?’
‘Too many direct questions. If you ask direct questions, you’ll be disappointed by the evasive and uncertain answers. Sometimes there are no answers, and in the meantime, people will stop talking to you. Learn to infer.’
‘ Megale u Vecchiu is now truly old,’ said Ruggiero.
‘That’s more like it. Now that he is a free but ailing man, Tony’s time may have come. At the Polsi summit, Tony may announce his intention to take over the German colony from his father. Pietro will never raise any objection, because he fears Tony. Tony seems to think this is a good thing, but having members of your own family fear you is an evil.’
‘If Tony Megale really is part of the family.’
‘I am letting that pass once more, but never say it again. Many people think they know the truth about who Tony is, but they would be advised to keep their counsel. I think Enrico has also heard the story. But if he has not confided in you, then you must not know. Consider the story, weigh it in your mind, draw your own conclusions, and keep them in your heart — and speak to no one, not even me, about it ever again. Carrying secret knowledge in your heart, and never speaking, is a heavy burden, and it is time you started to feel the weight and learn how to deal with it.’
‘Shh.’ His father put a finger to his lip. ‘Imagine Old Megale fearing all of a sudden that Tony is not the right person. Maybe he thinks he should have tried harder with Pietro.’
‘That might be good for Enrico,’ said Ruggiero.
‘Enrico is young, and is reputed to be weak.’
Ruggiero instinctively began to defend his friend, then fell silent. His father was right: Enrico was weak.
‘If Megale, who is expected to retire, chooses to stay in charge until his death, or just stay on until he reaches a final decision, Tony might object. There may be a period of instability, a search for successors. That is precisely what the Society does not want. Anyone who is the source of instability or who attracts the attention of the authorities or acts unpredictably is a threat.’
‘Enrico is your friend, but he is also Tony’s son. You are Enrico’s friend, but you are also the son of a man whom Tony might feel has risen too high and moved beyond his control.’
‘Zia Rosa would not let anyone do anything to harm me.’
‘She is a good woman. Her husband is a decent and simple man whom I trust. Tony is my honoured companion abroad. Individually, every Megale is a close friend. Collectively… I want you to be prepared when the time comes. Promise me that?’
‘I promise,’ said Ruggiero.
Tuesday, September 1
Enrico Megale, in the guise of a fat infant, was standing in a garden of roses, slicing at the branches of a short tree, which bled as it was cut. Thirteen men lay at its feet, thirteen was the number of branches… Someone was shaking him, and his dream slipped under his pillow. He tried to grab it with his hands, but the person shook him harder, and then unexpectedly kissed him.
‘Ruggiero?’ said his mother’s voice.
He knew immediately from the tremor in her voice that fear had taken hold of her.
‘We’re going to make a surprise visit to my sister in Catanzaro,’ she said. ‘And then maybe we’ll travel up north to do some shopping. Rome. We could go to Florence.’
The clock beside his bed told him it was 3:30. Wearily, knowing that whatever his mother had planned was not going to work, he climbed out of bed and sat staring at his feet.
‘Get dressed as quick as you can, and come downstairs, quietly,’ said his mother.
She was his mother, so he did as he was told. Reaching around in the dark, he grabbed the same clothes he had been wearing the day before. They felt a bit sticky and cold going on. He had changed his underpants and socks, which were the important things. He turned on the light and blinked at the brightness. His father might have called and told them to flee. His father was courageous but also practical and despised acts of bravado. ‘You are worth more than the fool brandishing a knife in public, showing off on his motorbike. Let him end up with his own knife in his throat, his skull fractured by a car. You have a duty to preserve yourself.’
The upshot of that reasoning was that, like Enrico, he was not allowed a scooter. His father’s philosophy and Zia Rosa’s womanish fears had the same result. But Ruggiero had a knife, which he did not brandish in public. It lay snug beneath his mattress at night.
Sitting on shelves were books and some soft toys that he thought he was saving for Robertino, but, he now saw, were already too old and faded for a new child. On his wall was the amaranth-coloured flag of Reggio Calabria, the only Calabrian football team ever to reach Serie A. In an approximation of the same red colour on a piece of paper he had written ‘Amaranto si nasce’. But in these parts, people were not really ‘born amaranth’. The team belonged to the other side of Aspromonte, where other families and other interests held sway.
A click and the light went off. He had not heard her come in.
‘Keep the lights off, love,’ said his mother who stood there with an empty suitcase in hand. ‘Are you ready?’
Ruggiero pulled on his shoes and watched as his mother, moving swiftly and quietly, added some of his clothes and a pile of battered storybooks that she used to read to him until Robertino was born.
He carried it downstairs for her, and was surprised to find Robertino sitting there in his baby bouncer, in gurgling serenity.
‘Robertino’s always awake and quiet at this time,’ said his mother, picking up on his surprise. She went over to the high chest of drawers in the corner of the room, and ran her hand over it like she did when looking for dust, only this time she did not examine her hand.
‘Did I ever tell you my parents gave me this? My father got it from his grandfather who got it from his father. It was made in the 1500s for the monks of the Abbey of San Giovanni in Fiore. It must be worth thousands. Go upstairs to your room, check to see if your bed is made.’
‘It is made.’
‘Well, go up again. Straighten the cover. Just make sure it’s perfect.’
‘Should I close the shutters on my bedroom window?’
‘No, keep your shutters open. Don’t close any shutters. I am going to put Robertino in the back of the car. You check your room, then come down. Pull the front door closed behind you.’
Ruggiero did as he was told. When he came down, the other two were already in the car. He shut the front door softly behind him. He climbed into the Fiat Panda next to his mother. The car was filled to brimming with jumper suits, little white T-shirts, baby bottles, toys, suitcases, plastic bags and bottles of water.
Behind him, the baby was asleep in a stroller bed that his mother had secured with a crisscrossing of all three seatbelts in the back. She turned around, gave him a smile of reassurance, then slid the key into the ignition and turned the key.
It was as if there had never been a connection between the ignition and the engine. She turned it again, but the only sound was the soft breaths of Robertino in the back, the squeak of the suspension as she leaned forward and made a third vain attempt.
Ruggiero plucked the house key out of his mother’s bag, which lay open on the seat between them, without her seeming to notice. He climbed out of the car and walked back towards the front door. His mother remained in the dark car, embracing the steering wheel.
Ruggiero eventually coaxed his mother out of the car, back into the house. Robertino had dozed off in the back seat, then woken up when moved, and was now in no mood for further transfers. He needed feeding, comforting, changing, cuddling, petting, lulling and laying down again.
As his mother carried out these rites, Ruggiero could see she was beginning to shake off the shock that had momentarily disabled her when the car would not start. In calming the baby, she had calmed herself. Even so, he felt the grip of her fear when, as he was passing, she suddenly grabbed him and held on to him, her hand hard like a claw, and said, ‘Get all our stuff out of the car and back into the house.’
Detaching himself, Ruggiero said, ‘So Papa’s in trouble and we must flee?’
She shook her head. ‘Something’s wrong. He called earlier, while you were asleep. He said he could not make the flight to Lamezia Terme, and might even miss the Polsi celebrations.’
‘He will never abandon us,’ said Ruggiero with total conviction.
‘Of course not,’ she said, her voice laced with doubt. ‘Will you please get the stuff out of the car back into the house? I’m going to lie down with Roberto now,’ and so saying she lifted the sleeping bundle, whose small fists were clenched in a communist salute, and took him upstairs.
Ruggiero went out the front door, leaving it slightly ajar. Closed or open made no difference. If they killed his father, they might come looking for his family, but then again they might not. If they failed to find his father, however, they would inflict pain on his family to punish him or draw him into the open. Who would the executioners be? Who would know in advance? Basile, obviously, since not a leaf stirred in the town without his say-so. Pepe and his family were likely to know, and any one of them, Pepe included, would be capable of pulling the trigger, plunging the knife, tightening the wire, igniting the blaze. Or, as his father had intimated, Enrico’s family, the Megales? Not Enrico, because he was weak. Never Zia Rosa. That left Pietro. Yes, Pietro could do it, but he would not be capable of working alone. Pietro needed to be told what to do.
Had his mother done something she should not have? She was acting fearful and seemed unable to find or bring comfort. She would never have gone to the police or anything like that, and her opportunities for an illicit affair were nil. Another possibility was that they were at the start of a new, wide-ranging feud. If it was a feud, the Curmacis would emerge as the winning faction: he could feel it. Soon he would command full respect from all of them. Magnanimous, he would extend protection to Enrico, set out rules for how young heirs to the Society should behave among themselves. Some of the old rules needed to be reinstated. The old stories needed to be heard again.
If his mother wanted to flee, then it was his filial duty to help. But to help her to the best of his ability implied seconding her intentions, not following misguided orders. So he walked by the car, ignoring his mother’s instructions to empty it. He had a better idea to try out first.
He left the overgrown front garden, which protected them from prying eyes, turned on to the unpaved and unlit side street, his thoughts as dark and deep as the night air. If there was a feud in the offing they needed allies, but Ruggiero had not registered any improvement in attitudes towards him. The afternoon in the bar without telephones had indicated the exact opposite. He had convinced himself that Enrico was the target, and the main point had been to teach Enrico not to be so soft and complacent. Before a large-scale feud, some people would change cafes, others would suddenly prefer one side of the street to the other, one petrol station to another, many would vanish. If there was a feud, some people would sit three-quarters turned from him, others would come up and warmly greet him in the street, make loud jokes and recommendations for all to hear, and move on. But no one had approached, no one had visited, and no one was offering friendship.
He arrived at Enrico’s rusty gate. He lifted the deadbolt and began edging the gate inwards, pausing after every creak and crunch. Enrico, Zia Rosa and Zio Pietro had a dog, a vicious, sheep-mauling, sly mongrel that had arrived when he and Enrico were still toddlers. The dog, never allowed in the house, spent most of its day running after traffic, yet had never been hit by a car. Its unnatural luck had been noted, especially since it was assumed that some people in the neighbourhood must have deliberately tried to crush the beast below their wheels and put an end to its reign of terror over small children and other dogs. The animal had every reason to like him more than Enrico who had never treated it with any kindness, but it was still capable of emerging from the prickly mesh of bush where it lived, and growling and baring its teeth, just to say it knew he could not have a legitimate reason for being here at this time of night. But no white fangs and shiny eyes appeared in the darkness. The beast was probably off killing chickens somewhere.
The car he was aiming for was parked directly in front of the kitchen window. It was an old, uninsured Fiat Ritmo, treated almost as badly by Zio Pietro as the dog. They used the old car to drive across fields and drag pieces of farm equipment around. When they wanted to arrive in style at church or in town, they drove the Range Rover with tinted windows and polished hubcaps that they kept locked in a cowshed.
The door on the driver’s side did not even close properly, let alone lock, but on opening it creaked almost as much as the gate. The kitchen window in front of him remained dark as did the window above that, where Zia Rosa and Zio Pietro slept in separate beds. Enrico’s room was on the other side of the house, overlooking a disused vineyard, defined by a line of crumbling cement posts linked by sagging wires.
Ruggiero climbed into the front seat, holding hard on to the door to stop it both from creaking open and from banging closed. He figured he could afford to slam it once he had the car out of the gate. Sometimes Zio Pietro left a few keys in the glove compartment, any one of which, with a bit of twisting and turning, could be used to turn on the ignition and engine: and there they were. Good. He would start the engine on the road outside, halfway between their gate and his own — or maybe he’d push the car down the last few yards of road as far as his own house, just to be on the safe side. The Ritmo had a shuddering motor that sounded like a two-stroke, and was audible from a distance. The important thing now was to freewheel quietly out of the gate on to the road. He eased the driver’s door inward towards himself with exaggerated care, and so when it struck the object that had invisibly interposed itself the impact, though soft, ran through him like an electric shock. The car door was being impeded by something heavy, dark and alive. Inches from his wrist a white smile of sharp teeth appeared at the same time as the dog growled.
Ruggiero felt his fear melt into rage, which ran down his arm as sweat, and he knew the dog would smell it and react.
‘Shh. It’s me. Shh. There’s a good boy, you lousy stinking filthy animal, get away from here.’ He put out his hand, and the dog growled again and bared its teeth. ‘Me,’ repeated Ruggiero. The dog growled again, and Ruggiero pushed his upturned wrist into the mouth so that one bite could split his veins. ‘Me. It’s me, the only human who ever loved you, you fucking evil beast.’
The dog pushed its head forward so that when it closed its mouth on Ruggiero’s hand it merely massaged it with its blunter back teeth. Ruggiero ran his hand against the side of the hot mouth and then slapped the animal on the side of the neck. ‘Stop it, good boy, now move.’
The dog backed away, vanishing almost at once, and Ruggiero released the handbrake and pressed down on the clutch. The car began to roll very slowly backwards, the driver’s door swung out and he pulled it in again. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of movement at the bedroom window. For a moment, he thought it was a reflection of the dog moving, but the image was pale, and the dog was dark. Besides the image had appeared on the second floor, at a height where the dog could not be. As the car gathered some speed and rolled away towards the gate, he imagined a face staring out at him from behind the glass, but he had to turn his head back to guide the car, which was moving faster than he had expected. It took all his force to avoid sideswiping the hanging gate. He spun the steering wheel to direct the car into the road, and the gravel below crackled and snarled beneath the bald tyres. Suddenly the steering column lock engaged, and the car, now losing speed, made a slow but inexorable turn towards the low wall. He braced for impact, but before he hit the wall, the back wheels dipped into a dry ditch, and Ruggiero was thrown backwards and then forwards, hitting the horn with his chest. The horn sounded for no more than half a second, but it was the loudest noise he had ever heard.
He kicked at the stupid door till it opened. He was not going to be able to push the car out of the ditch, and revving the engine to get it out would simply draw a large audience. By now he was not even sure he knew how to break the lock without breaking the whole thing and whether he should have attempted this to begin with.
It would be more manly to await his fate at home and defend his mother and brother there. Passing by the gate he looked up to Enrico’s house, and this time what seemed like an afterimage of Zia Rosa was watching him from behind the window. He almost lifted his hand to wave. If she had seen him, the next time he sat at the kitchen table eating one of her meals, she’d give him a significant look and say nothing, then, as he was leaving, she would ask him if he had anything he wanted to tell her. That had been her method when she had discovered his unconfessed misdemeanours in the past: a broken window here, a missing jar of Nutella there, or that dangerous excursion into the collapsing outhouses at the end of the garden when he had gone rat hunting. He never had anything to tell her, but appreciated the gesture and her discretion.
By the time he reached his house, he was beginning to rethink the experience. It could never have been her. It was too dark and too far for him to have seen her face at the window as he was passing on the road. His imagination was playing tricks on him, because it was 4:15 in the morning, and his brain had decided to go back to dreaming without telling him. And now, finally doing as his mother had asked him, he lifted two suitcases from their car and took them back into the house, expecting her to be there waiting fearfully and angry at his delay, but there was no sign of her. He put them down quietly in the hall so as not to waken her, and went back outside to collect the other things from the car.
It was on his fourth trip in that he heard his mother’s voice, speaking softly as if from far away. He moved quickly and quietly to the kitchen door, then walked in suddenly, catching her unawares. She swung her body sideways away from him, and clasped the phone closer to her ear. She seemed to express a few words of gratitude and clicked the phone shut and slipped it with mock casualness into a kitchen drawer. It was 4:35 in the morning and she was making or receiving secret calls. He felt he had a right to know.
‘Who was that?’ demanded Ruggiero.
‘None of your business.’
‘Of course it’s my business.’ He went over to the kitchen drawer. His mother shrank away for a moment as he approached her, which gave him a hard, righteous feeling of gratification for a second or two, before it was submerged by a sudden wave of panic, followed by sadness as he realized that she had just ceased to be the all-knowing source of total love on whom he could always depend. She should not be shrinking from him, she should be reaching out to him, pulling him into her embrace, and telling him everything would be fine. But as he looked at her, he realized that was what she was hoping for from him, which angered him all over again.
He opened the drawer, pulled out the phone. ‘I’ve never seen this before,’ he said.
‘No?’ She was still trying to sound casual.
‘Who did you call, Papa?’
‘Nothing to do with you.’
‘It’s everything to do with me.’
‘You are not the only child in this house.’ She sat down at the table, brushed the back of her hand over its grainy surface, then rubbed it against her own cheek. ‘You didn’t wipe the table like I asked you, Ruggiero. You never do as I ask.’
‘Who?’ Ruggiero demanded again. ‘Was it a local call?’
‘No. Not local. Is that Robertino crying?’
‘No, not yet. But if you don’t answer, then I’m going to bed,’ said Ruggiero and went upstairs.
His mother was still downstairs. Maybe she was making more phone calls, appealing for help, for he knew that was what she had been doing. He was ashamed of her, but he wanted her to succeed, too. He wished his father were there to tell him what to do next.
Over five days in March, in the middle of which they celebrated his fifteenth birthday, his father had begun by telling him things he already knew, calmly and so slowly that he began to feel impatient. He was a giovane d’onore, the son of a man of honour. Ruggiero almost rolled his eyes at this. He knew whose son he was. He had an idea of where he fitted into the hierarchy, but he lacked the absolute precision of others like Pepe and even Enrico. They knew who should respect them more, who less, and who they need not even consider as entitled to an opinion, which included more than half the class and all the teachers, except for the coach. But in six visits over two years, his father had slowly started unpacking small and mostly unwelcome surprises, things Ruggiero thought he knew, but hadn’t. First, a giovane d’onore did not automatically become inducted into the honoured Society at the age of sixteen.
‘I know that,’ said Ruggiero, aggressive because he had failed to hide his surprise. ‘Everyone knows that.’
‘We may postpone the date, because study is also important.’
‘I’ll be the only one.’
‘Once in, you’ll move up quickly. There is no rush. I want to make sure that you are suited to it.’
This made Ruggiero angry, but his father had been unmoved. ‘First I shall test your mettle. When we are certain about what you can do, then we can let others conduct the initiation rites. Think of it like knowing the answers to an exam beforehand.’
‘How will you test my mettle?’
‘Good question. I hope the occasion does not present itself too soon. But it will eventually.’
Another day, his father told him, ‘Don’t always look for explanations. Sometimes there aren’t any.’
‘Explanations of what?’
‘Anything. A disappearance, an accident, an earthquake, a sudden violent death, the tragic killing of an innocent man. Don’t look for explanations.’
On his second to last day before leaving, his father had told him that the important thing was to persuade people. ‘When you are persuading people, you must not distinguish between friends and enemies. Everyone must be persuaded. You yourself must be persuaded.’
‘What if it’s not true?’
‘Your belief makes it true. If you believe something to be true, then it becomes true.’
He didn’t really get that bit. Nor did he quite understand his father’s claim, on the morning before he left for Germany, that things that were equal could also be different.
‘If I gave you two fifties,’ and here he handed him two 50-euro notes, ‘is that the same as my giving you five twenties?’ and here he handed him five 20s. ‘Or ten tens?’ This time he handed him nothing.
‘Sure. Five times twenty is the same as two times fifty.’
‘Well, you’re wrong. They are different acts.’
‘OK,’ said Ruggiero, resolving to think about it later.
‘That money is for buying treats, not for clothes, shoes or any necessities,’ his father had said. ‘If you need new clothes, your mother will pay.’
‘I want you to spend three-quarters of what I gave you on buying things for your friends. If I’m not back by June, your mother will give you another € 200. Three-quarters of the total on your friends, right?’
‘And take good note of who always lets you buy and who never lets you buy for them. Beware of both extremes. The ones in the middle, who let you buy sometimes and then treat you sometimes, are more trustworthy.’
‘But don’t rely on just that. There is never just one trick, never just one answer.’
‘Supposing something bad happens?’ He had not meant to sound so childish and helpless. The words just tumbled out.
‘If something happens, your mother will let me know, and I’ll get here.’
Or had he imagined that response?
He unbuttoned his shirt, and stood there bare-chested, thinking of the car in the ditch, the opened gate. He often practised trying to overcome the feeling of vulnerability that being bare-chested gave him. Logically, it made no sense, since a knife or bullet wound inflicted through a shirt was exactly the same as one inflicted on bare skin, and yet he could not help feeling that it would be worse.
His mother had stopped moving around downstairs. In the next room, Roberto sighed in his sleep. The effect was always comical when he did that, the sigh sounding so world-weary.
A foot scraped on the gravel outside the house. It was an unmistakable sound, the same that his own feet made day after day. Ruggiero froze. Downstairs he heard a click, then a thud. It was the back door being opened. Walking on his toes, paying attention to his arms to make sure they did not bang into anything, he made his way over to his bedroom door, and listened. There would be at least three of them. He had heard no car. He thought he heard a gasp and a muffled thud. They must be using knives. His mother could be lying in a pool of her blood. He ran to his bed, and in one movement swept his hand underneath, spun around, and faced his bedroom door. In his hand he held a small black throwing knife that he hadn’t learned to throw yet.
The house was in utter stillness. Ruggiero stretched towards his bed to reach his pyjama top, but could not get to it without moving, and he found his legs were rooted to the floor. With enormous effort, he forced himself forward, away from his bed, towards the door. His left leg was trembling uncontrollably, he breathed in deeply, and the vibrations abated. He needed to talk to the killers, tell them to leave Roberto, or tell them that if they could murder an infant, it should not be with steel, which served other purposes.
‘A knife, a sword, a cutlass: these are called “white” weapons because they are associated with the noble warfare of knights. They demand skill and put the user at risk. A gun is a black thing that does not do this,’ his father had told him once. ‘But of course there is no honour in using a white weapon on an infant or a woman.’
But another time he had offered a different explanation, saying a knife was white when the light of the sun glanced off the flat of the blade.
Ruggiero’s puny black throwing knife reflected nothing. Gathering courage, he quietly slipped out his door across the hallway and into his little brother’s room, which smelt of talcum powder and bread. If his mother was alive, she should be here protecting Roberto. And she should be trying to protect him, though he would protect her. He sat down in the dark beside the cot, choked back his tears, and waited.
He heard a footfall on the stairs. The first step was quiet and careful, but the next were louder and more careless as they drew closer, and there were other feet coming up the stairs behind that and more behind that. At least three of them. Five perhaps. He could not count or reason.
Ruggiero touched the side of his brother’s sleeping head. The temple was still soft, and the child’s brain was pulsing with innocent thoughts beneath. There were voices in the hall outside. He went over and placed himself in front of the door, and pushed his chest out. He realized he had gone completely numb from his feet to the bottom of his neck, and it made no difference in the end if he was bare-chested or not.
They checked his room, and there was a surprised grunt as they found it empty.
Now the door was swinging open, and Ruggiero stood up. He put his arms behind his back and braced himself.
The man who entered the room strode over to Ruggiero, embraced him hard, kissed him on the side of the neck, combed his fingers through the boy’s hair, then pushed him back, and looked at him in admiration.
‘Were you in here defending your brother?’
‘No need now, my courageous son. I am here.’
Konrad Hoffmann was swimming deeper and deeper into the unplumbed depths of a restaurant fish tank and his voice streamed upwards in an angry buzz of bubbles to pop loudly but meaninglessly as they reached the surface, and Blume, observing that this was all far-fetched, especially the bit about the fish tank being bottomless, deep and dark, decided to wake up and grab at his mobile phone. He opened his eyes as he brought it to his ear, shocked to see daylight. If he had been asked to guess, he would have said he had been asleep for an hour at most.
‘Maria Itria has called for help. For real this time. She called Magistrate Arconti at around 4:30 this morning, but did not answer a call that he made later. After thinking about it for a bit he called me,’ said Caterina on the other end of the line.
It gave him such an unexpected lift to hear her voice first thing after a stupid dream about… red fish or something, that he was not sure he had understood the content of her message.
‘Caterina? Wait… go through that again.’
‘Curmaci’s wife. She called for help last night.’
‘She called you?’ Blume shook his head. ‘Sorry, dumb question, I was asleep just now.’
‘She called Arconti and said if something happened to her husband, she would be willing to turn state witness. Then she said she wanted police protection and an escort the hell out of there. Since then, her phone has been off. Arconti told me and I’m telling you. It’s six in the morning, you’re usually awake at this time, not that that was a consideration. The woman and her children are in trouble. Your trick has become self-fulfilling, and now she really is willing to reach out to the authorities.’
‘She called Arconti on her own initiative, in the early hours of the morning?’
‘Yes, he said he definitely got the impression she was either unaware of or indifferent to the fact of his hospitalization.’
‘Why didn’t Arconti call me?’ asked Blume.
‘I can’t second-guess Arconti, but I can think of several reasons he might not trust you after that stunt you pulled with the false confession.’
He felt a throb in the back of his head. If only it would remain there, but it would not. Within half an hour it would have worked its way to his frontal lobes and would sit pulsing like a toad all day long.
‘He’s very fucking busy for a man in a hospital bed. Why didn’t he call the local police, get them to pick up the Mafia wife and her progeny?’
‘Are you really asking that?’ said Caterina. ‘An order imparted from a magistrate in Rome to the local police would be intercepted pretty quickly, and the police themselves will be under surveillance, especially with the Polsi summit meeting coming up. They can’t move without being followed.’
‘Fine, but they’d still go and get her. Probably.’
‘He didn’t make that call.’
‘More strange behaviour on his part,’ said Blume.
‘You write false confessions but he’s the one who’s acting strange because he does not issue orders from his bed for the police at the far end of the country to go rescue a woman who is now not responding to calls? Apart from the fact he is not assigned to any case, on what grounds could he order a patrol around? For all he knows, it could be a trap or a diversion. She may have called to test his reaction.’
‘So what did he say?’
‘That he would pass on her message to a different magistrate who would contact her later in the morning. He said she could call the police herself if her need was immediate. At that point she hung up.’
What seemed like a bubble of methane rose from the back of his throat into the back of his head and popped with a thud. He counted six heartbeats, before the next thud arrived.
‘Yes, yes. Still here.’ But he wasn’t. His mind had darted back to the idea of Curmaci’s wife fleeing, Konrad as a fast-moving fish, a fragment from his dream.
‘Maria Itria said she would co-operate with the authorities if something happened to her husband, but as far as we know, nothing has,’ said Caterina. ‘But something is up. Curmaci’s acting strangely and his wife and children are in trouble, just like you wanted.’
‘What’s Curmaci doing that’s strange?’
‘He was booked under a false name on a flight from Frankfurt to Lamezia Terme, but he never took the flight, and he disappeared yesterday evening,’ she said.
‘Those geniuses at the BKA lost him?’
‘No, we did. The BKA saw him board a flight for Bari instead of Lamezia Terme and alerted us. That is to say, they alerted the Finance Police at Bari airport. The Finance Police registered Curmaci’s arrival and reported it to the Carabinieri at the airport, who reported it to the police in the city. Problem is, the police in Bari were in Bari while Curmaci was at the airport, and no one had told the Carabinieri… Well, you’ve seen how it happens. By the time it had been cleared up, and authorization given for the Carabinieri to follow him, he was gone. It appears he rented a car, and they’re looking into it.’
‘He changed his route at the last minute,’ said Blume. ‘Three or four hours will take him to Calabria and Locri. Looks to me like he’s just trying to shake off anyone who might be following. We can try to pick him up after the Polsi summit, though it’s not so easy to find those bastards. They seem to vanish into the Aspromonte wilderness only to turn up a few days later in New York, London, Malaga or Amsterdam.’
‘Or he does not want to meet his welcoming committee in Lamezia Terme,’ said Caterina.
‘You mean because he fears for his life? No. That’s not it. If he feared assassination at the hands of his own people, he’d steer clear of Calabria altogether.’
‘Typically, Alec, you keep forgetting his family. He has the strongest and most urgent reason in the world to get there. They are vulnerable. Funny how you seem to block that out of your mind since, I presume, that was the original idea behind the forged confession. Or didn’t you think about the consequences for the woman and her children?’
Blume paused to think. This was one of those questions Caterina liked to ask in which, whether he replied yes or no, he still came out of it looking like the bad guy. He chose the best response he could come up with: ‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know,’ she echoed, scathing. ‘You realize Arconti may be trying to do you a favour by not calling in the local police? A woman from the Ndrangheta, a s orella d’omerta confessing to a magistrate, especially one who has become notorious because of the namesake killing, is going to be big news. And if her story is big news, your efforts to force her husband back into Italy via a false confession is going to be just as big, maybe bigger given the poisonous atmosphere in the country against investigators and magistrates.’
‘I’m not a magistrate.’
‘Arconti is. If the story breaks in the press, every magistrate in Italy will distance themselves as fast and as far as they can from you and all your dubious tactics before Berlusconi’s hacks turn this into another weapon to use against the judiciary. They’ll throw you to the lions.’
‘Those reporters aren’t lions. More like trained monkeys.’
‘Trained to tear people apart, Alec. You know better than to hope for solidarity…’
‘All right. Point taken. My thanks to Arconti for allowing me to fix this thing myself.’
‘Good. What are you going to do now? What about the German you are with?’
Blume felt a small tingling in his stomach and arms, like a tiny version of the body’s aftershock to a near-miss traffic accident. Her question bothered him. ‘I think I need to talk with him,’ he said. ‘Right now, as a matter of fact. I’ll call you back.’
‘Sure you will,’ she said.
Blume ran up to the hotel lobby in his boxer shorts, his mind’s eye already anticipating what he would see out the window of the lobby, the silver leaves of the olive trees, the mass of dark green and pale white of jasmine bushes in the background, and, off to the side, nodding in and out of view, a scarlet hibiscus bush he had noticed the day before. His eye immediately latched on to the revolting plant as soon as he arrived in the lobby. Blume stared across the room out at the fat red flowers already opening in the morning sun, their protruding stamens licking at the air. Yesterday, when he had glanced out the window, the plant had been obscured by the rear section of an old orange-and-white camper van. Slowly now, since he knew the answer and because each footfall travelled up his body and thumped on the side of his aching head, he walked out the front door of the hotel and stood there bare-chested, looking at the empty space where the camper van had been.
‘You’ve been very obliging,’ said Blume, now fully dressed.
The manager stood back as he opened Konrad’s room and waved a generous arm to usher Blume in. Konrad had left his room not just empty but spotlessly clean. He had even made the bed and folded the towels. The manager then helpfully announced, ‘I heard the camper van very early this morning. But it is not my policy to check on the comings and goings of guests, even if they haven’t paid.’
‘You’ve got a credit card number for surety,’ said Blume. ‘I’m sure that helps you sleep through the sound of departing vehicles. What time was it?’
‘Right.’ He pushed his arm under the mattress, and swept his hand back and forth. It touched something, a remote control? No, a phone. To lull his controllers into thinking he was still here. Well done, Konrad.
The manager was watching him with interest.
‘Oh, listen, I almost forgot,’ said Blume, ‘I left my weapon in my room. My spare weapon.’ He winked as if this had meaning. ‘It’s in a top drawer…’ He did not even have to bother making up the rest. The manager had almost squealed in delight as he promised to fetch it for him.
When the manager had gone, Blume pulled out the phone from under the mattress. It was switched on. The Telefonbuch contained a short list of contacts, most of them consisting of shortened versions of first names: Max, Rob, Hlmt, Kris, Greg, Bea, Tri, none of which meant anything to him. He pocketed it, and headed to his room, where he told the manager, who was peering under the bed, that he had been mistaken about his weapon. The manager looked up from the floor, his eyes full of disappointment and suspicion as Blume set about stuffing his backpack with his dirty clothes and the copy of the documents he had lifted from Konrad. He then remembered that his suitcase, which should never have left the safety of his home, was in the damned camper van.
He went up to the lobby with the manager, who positioned himself defensively behind the reception desk and glared at Blume. A crackle of gravel outside told Blume, without looking round, that a car had arrived. How many had they sent?
‘Those are my colleagues arriving now,’ he told the manager. ‘Two people, am I right?’
The manager refused to look up.
‘Are they armed?’ whispered Blume in urgent tones, and the effect was immediate. The manager’s eyes lit up and he craned his neck to look behind Blume.
‘I can’t see. Two of them,’ he started retreating towards the back office.
‘They are police not assassins,’ said Blume. ‘I want you to take them down to Konrad’s — the German’s room. Don’t give any indication that I have been confiding privileged information to you. Can you do that?’
The manager winked.
The door opened behind them.
‘That means not even mentioning that he’s missing,’ added Blume quickly.
‘I understand,’ said the manager, helpless in the face of a confidence and willing to trust Blume one more time.
Blume turned around, and was both relieved and annoyed to see who had been sent. The two men standing there hardly made up his age between them. The one closer to him, a mop of jet-black hair, ankle boots, broad shoulders, momentarily assumed a defensive posture as Blume turned round, then relaxed. His partner, smaller, thin fair hair, wearing a puffed-up Japanese-style windbreaker to give himself some heft, was still twirling the car keys in his fingers.
‘Shh,’ said Blume, looking at the small one with the keys. He flashed his badge. ‘You’re not BKA? The person we’re looking for is downstairs.’
‘BKA?’ said the smaller man. ‘No, we’re…’
‘You armed?’ said Blume. He took out his Beretta, offered it to the same man.
The larger man stepped forward. ‘Of course we are armed, but we were detailed just to pick up two colleagues… nobody said nothing about a situation developing.’
‘OK,’ said Blume, holstering his pistol. He pointed to his backpack. ‘Let me throw this in the back, then I’ll need to explain..’ He took the car keys from the young man’s hand, then turned to the larger one. ‘I don’t think it’ll be a problem. The person you’re looking for is unarmed. Do you think you’ll be able to handle it, or shall I call in backup?’
‘What’s his problem? He’s supposed to be some sort of colleague, right?’
‘We had a falling out. I’ll call in some regular police support if you want.’
‘He’s not armed, you said.’
‘No. He’s never even worked in the field. Old guy. Older than me, even. Frail. Spent all his life behind a desk.’
The man turned to his nervous colleague. ‘Come on, let’s go get him.’
Blume nodded to the manager, who was bobbing up and down on the periphery and was overjoyed to be included in the action. ‘He’ll show you the room.’
Blume watched the three of them descend the stairs out of the lobby, reach the landing, turn and pass out of sight.
‘Be right down,’ he called after them. He pressed the button on the car key as he reached the front door, walked five paces and hopped into the driver’s seat of the car, tossing his backpack on the seat beside him. He put the key in the ignition and reversed out of the hotel courtyard blindly on to the curving coastal road.
Luckily, no one was coming from either direction.
On the Road to Calabria
Blume found the Class A Mercedes 160 he had stolen a disappointingly boxy little car, though it ran smoothly, and, half an hour later, he had to admit it handled quite well as he engaged in the nifty steering needed to negotiate the alternating one-way lane of the A3 autostrada, in construction since 1964 and still unfinished.
He was not likely to make up the two-hour headstart Konrad had and stop him from doing something stupid, but he saw no harm in trying. He directed the Mercedes into the narrow lane demarcated on one side by traffic cones and on the other by orange plastic road studs that slapped against the wheels in a satisfyingly rhythmic way as he drove over them, then negotiated a hairpin bend formed by concrete blocks.
A faded warning sign with two arrows indicated that the traffic was now two-way, which, in view of the trucks now bearing down on him, was self-evident. The effect was so like a video game that he found it hard to take the threat of an imminent head-on collision entirely seriously. Seeking a soundtrack to his adventure, he turned on the car stereo, and was horrified as Gigi D’Alessio’s wavering little voice started bleating out a folksy Neapolitan love song. He pushed at random buttons hoping to get the radio, but the stereo flashed some sort of message and then went quiet. He gave up. It was high time he got his eyes back on the road.
The stretch of the Salerno-Reggio Calabria autostrada he was now on had given up any pretence of being a work in progress. The warning signs were themselves in need of some repair. The temporary concrete dividers had acquired an air of permanence. They were barriers to the south, actively discouraging visitors. The smallest act, a dropped piece of concrete, a broken-down vehicle, a misplaced barrier, effectively cut off road access to all southern Italy.
A truck had stopped next to a cluster of porta-potty cabins, two of them toppled over. A few yards further on, a woman was selling fruit from a stall covered by a tarpaulin, held down by guy lines attached to butane gas canisters, which were sitting in the emergency lane. Blume had allowed a convoy of trucks to go hurtling by, adjusted the trajectory of the car which had been thrown sideways and towards the divider by the heavy slipstream they left in their wake, when he heard a phone ringing, apparently coming from the car stereo. He glanced down at the stereo, which displayed the message ‘incoming call’.
A Bluetooth connection between his phone and stereo. Neat. Or it would be if he knew which button to press. There were a few on the steering wheel, and he gave them a try. The ringing stopped.
‘ Ma vaffanculo,’ he muttered, banging the steering wheel.
‘So you steal a ROS vehicle and then you’re the one who starts shouting obscenities at me?’ said the stereo speakers.
‘You heard that?’ said Blume. He found the volume control and dialled down Massimiliani’s voice.
‘What the fuck, Blume?’
‘I am in hot pursuit.’
‘Of Hoffmann? The genius recruits they sent have let it be known that Hoffmann’s nowhere to be found. So they managed to lose you, Hoffmann and their car. I foresee two short intelligence careers.’
‘Not their fault,’ said Blume. ‘One partner should always be considerably older, and they thought they had been detailed just to act as chauffeurs.’
‘Forget about them. Tell me what’s going on.’
‘I am following Hoffmann.’
‘He’s in the camper van and you’re behind him in a stolen ROS vehicle? So those two also missed an orange motor home pulling out of the hotel as they drove in?’
Blume thought about it. He wanted to talk to Konrad, maybe dissuade him, but he was not sure he wanted to hand Konrad over to Massimiliani just like that. Konrad had a big headstart but in a very slow vehicle, and Blume felt inclined to give him this advantage, at least for now. Also, though he suppressed the thought as best he could, he did not want Massimiliani to know he had been outwitted by Konrad.
‘Sure. I have him in my sights.’
‘This is unbelievable. Does he know you’re following him?’
‘No. I had to act quickly, though. No time to explain to the agents you sent.’
‘I didn’t send those two… If Konrad’s trying to get away, why didn’t he make a run for it during the night, or in the early hours of the morning?’
‘I don’t know. Ask him. Maybe he just found something out,’ said Blume. He rummaged with his free hand in his backpack and pulled out Konrad’s phone to make sure it was still on.
‘Talk about a loose cannon. Don’t let him out of your sight while we arrange a roadblock. We can use the signal from his phone to see where he is. Keep yours on, too.’
‘Sure,’ said Blume. ‘But I need to know where he’s going, what he’s doing.’
‘Not now. I’ll call back.’ Massimiliani’s voice vanished.
Blume was so busy pressing buttons on the car stereo that had turned into a speaker phone to see how it worked that he almost went hurtling into the back of a Y-10 with a number plate from the late ’80s dawdling along at around sixty kilometres an hour. His passing swerve took out three traffic cones. Then, unexpectedly, there was a brief section of genuine two-lane divided road, just like a motorway in an ordinary country.
He got the radio working, and turned up the volume the better to hear a woman singing a song, which sounded Disneyesque. He found her voice a bit nasal, too, but was sorry when the song ended, then was inordinately annoyed at the fact they did not identify what it had been. When had they stopped identifying songs on the radio? When he was young, they always told you before the song and then again afterwards. The unidentified song faded into another. But he recognized this as Beyonce. He remembered sitting in the company of Caterina’s son Elia and watching a music video, and actively committing the name to memory. Beyonce so called because she’s bouncy. Maybe it would be a second topic of conversation with Elia besides the perpetually disappointing performance of the Roma football team. Elia was too young for the bouncy woman anyhow. The voice had a nice growl and power and invincibility. Shoulda put a ring on it, uh-huh-huh. Good song to encourage reckless driving.
It was possible, if damned unlikely, the extra speed would eventually bring him up behind the camper van. The dangerous driving required his full attention, which kept his thoughts away from the complicated mess he was making of everything. He needed to catch up with Konrad, stop him, talk to him, and then turn him in. He needed to get down to Calabria, find out about this woman, Curmaci’s wife. Massimiliani, for all he thought he was subtle, had failed to register any surprise whatsoever that Hoffmann was headed southwards on the A3. Evidently they already knew Konrad’s destination.
Blume switched off the stereo that presumed to answer his calls for him, and when his phone rang a quarter of an hour later, he had to hold it against his ear in the normal manner of all the other drivers on the road.
‘Can you see him?’
‘At this precise moment, no,’ said Blume. ‘But we are on the A3. There is no other way to go.’
Massimiliani seemed to find Blume’s answer believable. ‘I’m going to call you back soon.’
He meant what he said. Three minutes later, he was back.
‘Look, before I get to asking you about the change in plans, I want you to fall back a little,’ said Massimiliani.
‘You’re too close. Your phones started moving away from the hotel at exactly the same time, and have remained locked at the same point ever since. From here it looks like you’re tailgating him. Drop back a bit. If he goes off the autostrada, we’ll let you know.’
‘You’d think Konrad would know better than to leave his phone on,’ said Blume. ‘He’ll probably turn it off any minute now, though I suppose you’re tracking the IMEI number, so he’d need to dump or destroy the phone…’
‘I wouldn’t know about that sort of stuff,’ said Massimiliani. ‘I’m just passing on some advice from a person here who knows more than me, and he says to drop back.’
‘OK,’ said Blume. He trapped the steering wheel between his knees and pulled Konrad’s phone out of his pocket with his other hand and tried to slide the battery cover off with his thumb. It would be suspicious if Konrad vanished from the network just as they were talking about it, but he saw no alternative. Finally, the battery cover popped off.
‘Of course, now we know his story, we know his destination,’ said Massimiliani.
‘We do?’ said Blume.
‘Sure. He’s headed towards Calabria. Where else does that road you’re on lead? You’re still too close, if you don’t mind me saying. Pull back.’
‘Konrad speeded up. I need to stay close.’
‘Yes, I noticed that. That camper van must have some engine,’ said Massimiliani.
Blume fingered the battery in Konrad’s phone. ‘Suppose you’re wrong?’
‘About his destination? No. We know it’s Calabria, but not for the reasons we thought.’
‘What are the reasons?’
‘You’ll get briefed in good time, but for now…’
‘Tell me what you know about Konrad. I’ll be waiting for your call,’ said Blume. He hung up and put both hands on the wheel.
They found Teresa Resca’s body on Tuesday morning between the railway lines and the quarry lake, half a kilometre from the abandoned buildings they had searched. A team of volunteers, policemen working overtime and, crucially, dog handlers, beginning at first light, had spread out over the area, and there she was, Teresa, a small heap, face down, already sinking into the mud. The great mystery was how she had not been discovered earlier. The other was why whoever had done this to her had not tried to dispose of the body in the lake. Or maybe they had.
By now it was clear there was no organized crime connection. Fossati was not surprised that Bazza had been right. From the start he, too, had doubted that the father’s denunciations of the Ndrangheta had had anything to do with the disappearance, thought his articles and opinions, ignored for so long by the mainstream press, were now being reprinted as part of the late-summer horror story.
Be careful what you wish for.
Teresa’s mother received the news in hospital, where she had been taken two days before. She was under sedation, suicide watch, and armed guard.
The suspects were Kosovars, already in custody. They had been arrested on charges of loansharking in the past, and now faced life for murder. They started confessing and accusing each other within half an hour of the body being found.
Lost in his political obsessions, Giovanni Resca had failed to notice that his wife, who worked nights in the Policlinico San Donato, the very hospital in which she now lay drugged, though this time legally, was living far beyond her means. The jewellery he had assumed was cheap imitation was real, the clothes he attributed to her innate sense of style were designer, the irascibility, constant running nose, late lie-ins and increased tolerance and liking for liquor were not signs of an unshakeable cold. Nights out had been disguised as night-shift work, requiring her not only to hide the expenditure but to create the impression of earning overtime. She had borrowed € 50,000 five years ago, had made regular payments, yet now owed the Kosovars € 180,000. Her apartment was rented, her car was a Skoda, and her husband a failure, so when they came looking for collateral, they found nothing but her child.
Whether they had intended to kill the girl was another matter. The woman at the bus stop, who now had a face and a name, Altea Agushi, seemed also to have a conscience, or it might have been an instinct for self-preservation. Whatever it was, her testimony put her partner Dardan, now in San Vittore prison, in a very bad position, even if she continued to insist Dardan had not really meant to harm the girl. They had only wanted to scare the parents. But Dardan was a kick boxer, and hardly knew his own strength.
Fossati believed her, in that he believed the killing made no sense and was unplanned. When the girl started screaming, Dardan probably just lost it for a moment, as his wife said. But the moment was a long one. It had taken more than one blow to silence her, and when the moment was finally over, time had stopped for ever for Teresa.
‘I told you it could never end well, this story,’ said the magistrate.
The inspector beside him shook his head in disgust at the whole sorry mess, then brightened up a little. ‘Amazing that dog. It was like it knew. You’d almost arrest the dog and the handler for the way they went straight to the spot.’
‘What can you do with people like Dardan and Altea?’ asked Fossati. ‘You can’t make them care. That would be the best punishment: make them care. But you can’t. You can put them away for life, but you can’t touch them inside.’
The policeman ignored his musings. ‘I hear that the wedding ring we found helped make a breakthrough in that case of the dead Romanians. You know, the one that’s connected to the killing of the insurance guy, Arconti, and the judge in Rome?’
‘That is no concern of yours or mine,’ said Fossati.
‘Word spreads,’ said the inspector, unrepentant.
‘You police talk to each other too much.’
On the Road to Calabria
Massimiliani did not call back for half an hour, so Blume was able to continue his pell-mell driving and listen to young people’s music full blast on the stereo. When Massimiliani came back on the phone line, it was with another person.
‘Alec, I’m on speakerphone here with Weissmann.’
‘ Schiess los,’ said Blume.
Weissmann laughed heartily, ‘ Aber du sprichst gut Deutsch! ’
‘ Ein bisschen,’ said Blume modestly. He removed the battery from Konrad’s phone, opened the window, and dropped it out. Bad for the environment, apparently. Couldn’t be as bad as the car batteries left on the pavement outside his apartment in Rome.
Massimiliani cut in. ‘I already find difficult English, but speak no German. Please use English.’
‘ Ja, doch! ’ said Weissmann.
‘Sorry,’ said Blume, raising his voice against the inrush of air from the open window beside him. He flicked Konrad’s SIM card out, then crooking his arm and cupping his wrist, tossed the phone itself towards the back wheel of the car. If his wheels didn’t crush it, maybe the bastard tailgating him behind would, or someone after that. He rolled up the window.
‘OK, now… I have some notes,’ Weissmann was saying. ‘You are aware of course that Italian organized crime in Germany is considered a new phenomenon? I talk of the press, not of us in the BKA. We have been following it for years. But the Duisburg killing on the Feast of the Assumption interested the press, and now they write articles. But of course we are not as expert as you Italians.’
Blume heard Massimiliani say, ‘Thank you.’ He was not sure if Massimiliani’s English stretched to sarcasm, but it might.
‘The Ndrangheta was established well before we began to investigate it properly,’ said Weissmann. ‘I am talking about very recently. The late 1990s, you understand? And resources are still not
… well, that’s not your problem. But the phenomenon is still underestimated, I believe. This is because what we have in Germany are only branches of the main organization, or…’ Blume heard the rustling of papers. ‘Offshoots. That is the word. Ableger, oder? They are offshoots of the main tree, which is in Calabria, in a town called San Luca. And so we have hoped that the Italians will someday cut the tree down. But what has happened is these offshoots…’
‘ ’ndrine bastarde,’ said Massimiliani.
‘ Wie? Bastards?’ Weissmann sounded delighted.
‘That’s what the Ndrangheta calls its offshoots,’ said Blume, ‘ ’ndrine bastarde ’, bastard units. A locale is a set of various ’ndrine. If one of them gets too big, it might split and give birth to an ’ndrina bastarda. Sometimes a bastard unit grows up to become larger than the whole locale. It often happens, in fact, because the new Ndrangheta is more powerful and wealthier than the old. Each generation gets stronger. Maybe Seitentrieb in German?’
‘No! They must be bastard units,’ said Weissmann. ‘That is a very good name. And that is what has happened in Germany. Now even without Calabria, the Ndrangheta in Germany has its own base of power.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Blume. ‘But without Calabria as a home base, I think they mightn’t be as strong as all that. I thought you were going to talk about Konrad Hoffmann.’
‘Commissioner Blume?’ It was Massimiliani’s voice sounding formal and concerned.
‘Hoffmann has just disappeared from the network. He must have shut down his phone, taken the battery out and everything. Have you still got him in your sights?’
‘I was backing off like you told me to. So he’s got a bit far ahead. I can try to catch up.’
‘We’ve decided to intercept you at Atrena Lucana. That’s about seventy kilometres ahead of you. You’ll need to make sure Hoffmann doesn’t turn off before then, but there is no reason he would. He’s headed for Locri, San Luca, Africo or Polsi. The Locride zone for sure.’
‘I need to know what you have found out about Hoffmann,’ said Blume.
There was a pause and Blume could hear someone nearby speaking to Massimiliani. Eventually the DCSA captain said, ‘Look, Blume, I only learned about all this just now from the BKA. I’ll let Weissmann fill you in, then we need to talk.’
After a few moments’ silence, Weissmann’s voice came through, clearer than before, as if he had picked up a receiver and was speaking directly into it.
‘I’m here,’ said Blume, ‘and listening.’
‘OK, I must tell you this is what we have found out… In 1992, a young woman named Dagmar Schiefer was working in the Finanzministerium in the Nordrhein-Westfalen region. She was highly begabt, you understand? She was a clever, gifted young woman who had a good eye for data analysis, which was even more important in those days before we started to use good database abstraction layers. Dagmar, who was twenty-five years old and just out of a specialization course at university, became interested in what turned out to be what we call Karussellgeschaft, which in English is…’ He paused, presumably to look at his notes.
‘Carousel fraud,’ said Blume. ‘Almost the same as the German.’
‘You are wrong. Here it says the English translation is “missing trader intra-community fraud”…’
‘Let’s just call it fraud. Dagmar discovered fraud,’ said Blume. He thought he had glimpsed a familiar orange-and-white slow-moving vehicle disappearing over the crest of a hill. Cones and barriers had turned the autostrada back into a one-lane highway with a surface that ripped at his tyres.
‘Dagmar was brilliant,’ said Weissmann. ‘It is always easy to spot a fraud afterwards, when it has already been exposed, but Dagmar managed to identify profiles and models of behaviour. She created a sort of checklist of suspect actions so that fictitious companies set up to steal VAT from the government could be caught while still in the act. Even now, with all our computer power, it is hard to do this. This is also because everything is legal until one of the companies disappears. Also, we have to operate in different jurisdictions with different police, and that is very difficult, especially with the Dutch and the Spanish. The Dutch can be very unhelpful. Ein schwieriges Volk. We have good relations with the Italians in this area.’
‘Delighted to hear it,’ said Blume.
‘Yes. Of course it’s not just police but also tax officers, finance ministries, bureaucrats and accountants… In 1993, thanks to Dagmar, who also testified as an expert witness, we arrested thirty people, your colleagues in the Carabinieri arrested ten in this country, and there were more arrests in Spain and England. It was a very successful operation, but it was like a raindrop on a hot stone. In Germany, one of those arrested was a man called Domenico Megale.
‘More serious charges came later. That is why he stayed in jail from back then until now. Anyhow, we have been observing him for years, because it is clear that he still commands, or it was clear. In the last year of his imprisonment, he had few visits. Agazio Curmaci was one. Then, as you know, Domenico Megale was released a few weeks ago, and remains in Germany. So it seems he will not participate at the general meeting of the bosses in Polsi, but his son will. Also this Curmaci, whose role is hard to understand.’
‘It sounds like you are not sure if Megale is still the boss of the Dusseldorf colony, or if he has passed the command on to his son, or if someone else — Curmaci — has stepped in between them,’ said Blume.
‘This is the sort of information we hope to get by comparing notes with you Italians,’ said Weissmann, ‘but that is not the subject of this conversation, Commissioner.’
‘We were talking about Megale’s arrest.’
‘ Genau. It was a very long time ago. His arrest was important, because it was one of the very first, and the authorities finally became interested in the invisible new Italian Mafia. A colleague of mine wrote a special report on the Ndrangheta in Germany. Also, just after my arrival in the BKA, a major inquiry was launched into the Ndrangheta investments in Russia and, in particular, Gazprom, but you know who one of the top managers in Gazprom is?’
‘No,’ said Blume.
‘Gerhard Schroeder, our former Chancellor. So that investigation did not go very far. Then it was discovered the Ndrangheta was funding some politicians. There was a funding scandal with Thomas Schauble, a regional minister, brother of our current Minister of Finance in Merkel’s government. These are complex and delicate matters, and it is very difficult to find out the truth. In fact, most of the accusations are false, but it slows things down and makes it difficult for us to proceed.’
Now it was Weissmann’s turn to stray off topic.
‘Welcome to the world of Italian organized crime,’ said Blume. ‘Its three weapons of choice are confusion, intimidation and corruption. But it will always choose confusion first. Nobody really knows who’s on whose side. Everything is infiltrated.’
‘They cannot infiltrate the BKA,’ said Weissmann in definitive tones.
‘That is a very comforting thought,’ said Blume. ‘We were talking about this young woman Dagmar?’
‘Yes. Three months after testifying, Dagmar Schiefer, who had just turned twenty-six, disappeared, like the earth had swallowed her. This is 1993. She was still living with her parents in Dusseldorf at the time. One Friday evening, she did not come home. They thought she must have gone to a party or something and did not report her missing until Sunday. But they never saw their girl again. No one saw anything, heard anything. The local police had nothing.’
‘ Lupara bianca is what we call it in Italy. It means “white shotgun”. When the Mafia disappears a person for ever, leaving no trace. Usually, they dissolve the body in acid. Sodium hydroxide, I think.’
He managed to pass a line of cars and move up about twenty places, but the van he had spotted had disappeared from sight.
‘We think Agazio Curmaci killed Dagmar Schiefer. He was working closely with Domenico Megale at the time of the disappearance. In those days Curmaci was Megale’s driver. It is the closest we can get to associating Curmaci with an act of violence in Germany, but there was never enough to prosecute. A few days after Dagmar vanished, he was questioned and released within hours. Megale was in police custody at the time.’
‘So, you’re saying Curmaci killed this Dagmar back in the early 1990s. Has the investigation been reopened?’
‘We do not close cases such as these, but they do eventually lose priority. Last week, a former colleague in the BKA, Sebastian Eich, a man who has since retired, received a call from Dagmar’s mother. She called the BKA and asked to speak specifically to him, saying it was of the utmost importance. They put her in contact because she was so insistent. Eich and Dagmar’s mother had met many years before, you see. When the BKA finally intervened to explain to Dagmar’s parents — and to her fiance — that their daughter might have been killed by a new Mafia organization, Eich was the person who did it. That was in 1994, more than a year after Dagmar disappeared.’
‘I suppose they heard Megale had been released from jail, and all the old pain resurfaced. Is that what this is?’
‘Yes, they knew he had been released from jail, and that is connected. Before she disappeared, Dagmar Schiefer had been planning to move out of her family home to live with her fiance. He was a student, doing a post-graduate degree in archaeology. After Dagmar’s disappearance, he quit university, promising her parents that he would find out what happened and bring them proof that she was dead, find out who killed her, discover where she died. But he never did. At least not yet.’
‘That boyfriend will have forgotten now. It’s a lifetime ago. Unless he’s unable to let go… Oh, God. Wait — ’
‘I have no time to wait. This boyfriend has not forgotten. He visited Dagmar’s mother the day before she called Eich. He even asked her not to mention his visit to anyone, but she was worried he was about to do something stupid, which is why she called Eich.’
‘And federal agents in Germany are at the beck and call of old women with presentiments?’
‘ Unterbrechen Sie mich bitte nicht, Kommissar.’
‘Then get to the point, because I think I’ve already reached it.’
‘So you will have realized that Megale received a visit from Dagmar’s boyfriend, and that this visit had been observed by us.’
As Weissmann said this, the faded pictures of the young woman in the camper, the sad postcard pictures of journeys past flashed into the front of his mind, the torn Madonna, Konrad’s pale blue eyes, his personal quixotic mission.
‘Konrad Hoffmann,’ said Blume. ‘The boyfriend is Konrad Hoffmann. He wants the man who killed his girlfriend, and he has waited until now.’
‘Yes,’ Weissmann was saying, ‘Konrad Hoffmann. He quit his degree, joined the Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei and then the BKA a few years later. At this time, a few people did notice his career choice, also because for a brief period he was under suspicion as a fiance always will be in these circumstances, but then as the years went by and he carried out his work very well, no one on the force thought about his past, and he never spoke of it.’
Hoffmann distracted everyone with the idea of the Camorra and the Ndrangheta cooperating in toxic dumping, because that is a real phenomenon and part of a real investigation. There was a lot of sides to consider, and that is why no one looked into the deep past. We kept looking at what he does, not at what he used to be.’
Bullshit, thought Blume. The BKA had an agent with a grudge who had decided to set out on a mission against Curmaci; the Italians had the perfect idiot counterweight, him, who had also set out on a personal quest against Curmaci. Two loose cannons, each used to cancel the other out. He could appreciate the elegance of the solution, but felt humiliated at being played in this way. At least Konrad’s quest was noble.
‘Massimiliani, are you still there?’
‘I am, but Weissmann’s gone.’
‘Why now? Why am I learning this only now? Answer me honestly for once.’
‘No one knew. We are all learning this now.’
‘OK, why now for Konrad? Why is he acting now, after all these years?’
‘Honestly? Your guess is as good as mine,’ said Massimiliani. ‘But the most likely answer is Konrad needed confirmation from Megale that Curmaci was the killer, and perhaps permission to act. Maybe he just wanted to know where Dagmar’s body was. But he can’t have approached Megale and demanded any of these things without giving something back. He has something on them. So that is what the BKA want to talk to him about now. Finally, they have a strategy.’
‘He built up his own investigative file on Megale,’ said Blume. ‘He told me. He used it to coax information from the old man.’
‘I hope he planned for his investigation to be made available posthumously, if he thinks he can go down to Calabria, single out Curmaci, and revenge himself.’
‘Maybe he’s looking for information instead of revenge,’ said Blume.
‘He won’t survive. He is completely and voluntarily on his own. Megale sent him down to where he could be killed without the BKA being able to do anything about it, nor even investigate afterwards. Meanwhile, Megale himself stays in Germany with a perfect alibi.’
Blume cleared the crest of a hill. A narrow stripe of road with two-way traffic stretched out below him, visible all the way down to the black oval mouth of a tunnel cut into a hillside of limestone so blindingly white it hurt his eyes to look at it. A red car travelling towards him came shooting out of the tunnel just as a two-tone camper van disappeared into it.
On the road in Calabria
Blume had never been able to distinguish between the myths and the realities surrounding the Ndrangheta, the Sacra Corona Unita, Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the Stidda, but at least he knew he didn’t know. Had Konrad, the German who thought he understood Italians and could speak Neapolitan dialect, failed to see the elaborate hoax? The Ndrangheta loved its symbols but kept them internal. A signed piece of paper from Megale would never turn a German federal policeman into a figure the Ndrangheta could trust even for a moment. Surely he knew that?
The road had narrowed further to the width of a country lane. It was going to be like this more or less until the very end. Hundreds of kilometres down to the tip of the boot at an average speed of what, fifty kilometres an hour? Berlusconi had promised a massive bridge at the end of it, connecting Reggio Calabria to Sicily. Presumably the Ndrangheta would build the first span, from the mainland towards Sicily, Cosa Nostra would build the span from Sicily, and they’d never meet in the middle.
He froze his thoughts as a gap opened in the oncoming traffic, and he moved up nine more places. The road now followed a squiggling line and he could not see far ahead. But half an hour later, he thought he saw the camper van, now only half a mile ahead. The phone beside him started buzzing, but he ignored it: he needed two hands on the wheel now. Dipping the right wheels of the car into a ditch on the verge made shallow by the rubble and rubbish that filled it, he managed to create his own emergency lane and pass an entire line of vehicles on the inside. The wheels rumbled and the side panel and fender on the right were taking a hell of a battering, and then he hit an invisibly low divider, but somehow managed to keep going and, after ten minutes, came right up behind the camper van. He swung back into lane behind it, and it was then he saw the yellow-and-black number plate and the ‘NL’ sticker.
Dutch holidaymakers. Was there any corner of the planet that had not been reached by a Dutch family in a caravan? And now that he was directly behind it, Blume realized the van was twenty years too modern but made to look retro-chic. Finally, he accepted that Konrad had gone.
The land flashing by was soft and lush, the vegetation so fertile that it had invaded the verges. He picked up speed and went racing past a sign indicating Sibari. That was on the opposite coast, the Ionian Sea. If it was signposted here, then he had to be passing one of the narrowest parts of the peninsula. It was possible that Konrad had turned off here. It was not the most efficient way to cross the narrow neck of land to the other side, but it was precisely the sort of mistake Konrad would make. Or maybe he would have been unable to resist the allure of the name. The ancient Greek colonists of the town, the Sybarites, used to be renowned for sex, luxury, wealth and power. Sibari had come down in the world, but they were still there, the ancient Greeks, now Calabrians.
A ping followed by an orange warning light told him he needed petrol soon.
Twenty minutes later, he pulled into an Agip service station, handed the keys to the attendant, and asked for a full tank. A blue-and-white estate car of the highway police, with two uniformed officers in it, pulled up beside him. Blume ignored them. The driver waved at him and, when Blume still failed to respond, got out and walked around.
‘Commissioner Blume? We were asked to… um, accompany you.’
Blume paid the attendant and reversed out of the forecourt in the direction of the snack bar. He got out, holding the phone Massimiliani had given him in his hand. The police car made a U-turn and followed. Casually, it stopped just close enough to block Blume’s exit.
The driver pointed at his warped fender. ‘Did you have an accident?’
‘No, no, that’s… collateral damage,’ said Blume. ‘Accompany me where?’
‘Right,’ said Blume. ‘Are you driving me or…?’
‘It would be good if you were to get into our car. In the front seat, of course, sir.’
‘I can’t drive behind you?’
‘Well, technically…’ The policeman bounced the toe of his boot against the tyre of the police car a few times as he avoided Blume’s gaze. ‘Technically, you’re driving a stolen vehicle, sir.’
‘And to think I just put 70 euros worth of super unleaded in the car. I’ve a good mind to suck it out again.’
Blume opened the passenger door, nodded to the policeman seated there who scowled, but got out and sat in the back. For a moment, he imagined himself kicking the policeman out, leaping into the driver’s seat, and roaring away.
Just as he was about to get in, his phone rang. He put up a finger warning them to wait, cupped the phone to his ear, and wandered off towards the air pumps.
It was Caterina.
‘Can you be quick about this? I’ve got friends waiting.’
‘Still on your top-secret mission, then? Besides getting away from me and avoiding difficult decisions, what else persuaded you to place yourself under the command of a Carabiniere conducting an operation without any apparent judicial oversight? A boyish sense of adventure, was it?’
‘Sometimes, magistrates can be called in on a need-to-know basis. They are not always to be trusted,’ said Blume.
‘You got that right,’ said Caterina. ‘I can tell from the tone of your voice you still want to play it like you’re controlling events. Fine. I just thought you’d be interested to know the magistrate in Milan who’s conducting the investigation into the Arconti case is Ezio Bazza. He’s also looking into the killing of the assassins, which you forgot to mention to me when you found out, so thanks for that.’
‘I wasn’t sure… sorry.’
‘A “sorry”: well, it’s something,’ she said. ‘Meanwhile, another magistrate in Milan, investigating the case of a missing girl, came across Arconti’s wedding ring.’
‘That’s good,’ said Blume. ‘That’s really good.’
‘It gets better. The ring was found in a sequestered construction site belonging to the Mancuso family.’ She let the news sink in.
‘So they have found the site where Arconti was killed?’
‘Almost certainly. The technicians are still working on it.’
‘The property is owned by the Mancuso family?’
‘The Mancusos are allied to Megale,’ said Blume. ‘Tony Megale married into the Mancuso family. The wife died of cancer. They had a son…’
‘… called Enrico,’ finished Caterina. ‘He lives with his aunt and uncle in Locri, down the road from where Curmaci’s wife and kids live. Panebianco’s been helping me with the research.’
‘That Mancuso news is definitely interesting,’ said Blume. He picked up the air hose and blasted it at a spider on its way from asphalt to a patch of crabgrass. The spider rolled itself into a ball and allowed itself to be blown away, and Blume found he had just covered his hand in filthy oil.
‘Is it so interesting that it might cause you to doubt your theory that Curmaci is responsible for ordering the death of the namesake? Because from where I am sitting, it looks like Tony Megale or his father is behind it.’
‘I don’t follow you,’ said Blume. He did, but he wanted to hear someone else voice his own thoughts.
‘Were you even listening? The victim was taken to a property owned by the Mancuso family. Tony Megale married into that family. His wife
‘… died from cancer, they have a son called Enrico. I know, but why does any of this exonerate Curmaci?’ demanded Blume.
‘Because, since they used a Mancuso property and got Mancuso help, it suggests Tony Megale carried out the killing, or ordered it.’
‘Yeah, but why?’ said Blume. ‘Tony Megale had no compelling reason to kill Arconti’s namesake.’
‘Maybe Tony wanted to put Agazio Curmaci in an awkward position just before the Polsi summit. Compromise him, cast doubt on his judgment, and make it too dangerous for anyone to appoint him as head of operations in Germany,’ said Caterina. ‘Maybe he just hates Curmaci. Maybe, Alec, there are people out there who will do things, like forge confessions, so that the blame falls on others.’
‘You are always so moral, Caterina. We’re talking about someone killing a guy just to embarrass his rival.’
‘You’ve always told me that people don’t need compelling reasons to kill.’
‘I have? How wise-sounding of me. How about this: Tony Megale killed the Arconti namesake, just like you say, but he did it because Curmaci told him to.’
‘Is Curmaci so powerful he can order Megale to do this?’
‘You’ve made enough good points for one call, Caterina, bearing in mind that others may be listening into this conversation,’ said Blume, as he turned and headed back towards the forecourt where the highway cops were both eating Cornetto ice cream and making a great show of not watching his movements from behind their sunglasses.
‘Is that all you have to say?’
‘I realize that I think now I may have been wrong in some of my assumptions and a few of my actions.’
Blume pulled a windscreen squeegee out of a bucket and slipped his oily hand into the filthy water, then, unable to bear the disequilibrium of having one hand dry and the other one wet, transferred the phone into the wet one, which was now dripping black water up his arm, and plunged his clean hand into the bucket. The cops looked on impassively as he reached for the paper towel dispenser and found it empty.
‘You didn’t ask about the wedding ring,’ said Caterina.
‘That’s right, I didn’t,’ said Blume, cradling the phone with his shoulder and flicking filth from his fingers.
‘He probably took it off himself and dropped it there to leave us a clue.’
‘It worked a treat, then,’ said Blume. ‘Good thinking by the actuary.’
‘Or he could have taken it off so they wouldn’t rob it from his corpse, or find the name of his wife inscribed inside.’
‘Also possibilities,’ said Blume.
‘Or it could have been a gesture of love and respect,’ she said.
‘That, too,’ agreed Blume, crouching down and drying his hands on his socks.
Caterina gave a sigh of exasperation. ‘Listen, that confession from Curmaci’s wife…’
‘What about it? You realize you are speaking on an open line.’
‘I know what I am doing, but are you doing what I asked?’
‘You mean helping the much put-upon wife? It’s hardly my main priority, Caterina. It’s not as if a person like that…’
But she was gone.
Blume climbed into the front of the police car, crossed his arms and sat back in his seat, resolutely refusing to join in the driver’s one or two attempts at light banter as they sped down the autostrada towards Cosenza. He wished he had a wide-brimmed cowboy hat that he could tilt down over his brow. But by dint of half closing his eyes and squinting truculently at the handbrake, he managed to impose silence in the car. Settling back in his seat and wondering why Massimiliani had stopped phoning, he almost fell asleep. Not until they pulled in under the shadow of the modern grey police headquarters in Cosenza did he bestir himself.
The driver stopped the vehicle and addressed his companion in the back. ‘Giuseppe, come round to the front seat. The commissioner gets out here.’
The policeman came round as instructed and pulled open the passenger door. Blume stepped out. The door behind him slammed and the car sped off. In front of him, standing with folded arms beside an outsized blue-and-white Range Rover with cages over its side windows and headlights, stood Captain Massimiliano Massimiliani.
‘You have a lot of explaining to do,’ said Massimiliani. ‘But first of all, where is Konrad Hoffmann?’
‘ I have a lot of explaining to do?’ said Blume. ‘How did you get here ahead of me?’
‘Cosenza has an airport?’
‘A helicopter all this way just for me?’
‘Shut up, Blume. I took a chartered plane from Ciampino to Lamezia Terme, came up north by car. You’ve lost our German friend?’
‘If I hadn’t already, I would have when those two clowns picked me up at the service station.’
‘That was not my decision. They couldn’t very well leave you with that car. Come on, get in. We can talk as we get out of this horrible town.’
‘It’s not that bad,’ said Blume, looking around for the first time. ‘A bit like a seaside town without any sea. But it’s quiet and there’s plenty of parking. And it’s nice and cool because we’re actually pretty high up. So there is that.’
Massimiliani looked at him and shook his head. ‘I thought I had the measure of you, but I don’t know when you are being serious. Please don’t tell me you took this whole Konrad Hoffmann thing as some sort of elaborate joke.’
‘I didn’t take it entirely seriously, not at first. I knew you were testing me…’
‘Wait,’ Massimiliani held up his hand, ‘which direction?’
‘Konrad. That’s still your mission. It’s rather embarrassing that we’ve lost him.’
‘You don’t seem that embarrassed,’ said Blume.
‘I learned about Konrad and Dagmar just before you,’ said Massimiliani. ‘If the BKA doesn’t see fit to explain what’s happening, then there is no reason we should care what happens to their agent. As long as he does not upset any equilibrium here in Italy. Wouldn’t you agree?’
‘That it serves the Germans right if Konrad gets himself killed? Maybe. But then I would have to believe you when you say you only just found out.’
‘I am telling you the truth, but whether you believe me or not is of no consequence to anyone, Blume,’ said Massimiliani.
‘I’m glad to hear you say that out loud. From the beginning you have had a restrained contempt for me, for the mission, for the Germans. For Arconti, too.’
‘Arconti’s a friend. He recommended you. Friends make mistakes.’
‘Recommended me for what, Massimiliani?’
‘For being unattached, dissatisfied with your prospects, pigheaded, occasionally unscrupulous…’
‘I was not referring to my many qualities. What was the nature of the mission?’
‘Like you said, I lost him. What was the mission?’
‘To keep an eye on Konrad. So well done, there.’
They continued in silence for a few minutes until Massimiliani arrived at an intersection. ‘So, now what?’
‘Go south, back to Lamezia Terme airport,’ said Blume. ‘Then we can cut across to the east coast.’
‘You’re sure that’s where he’s headed? I mean you believe this thing about him looking for Curmaci because of a dead girlfriend from decades ago?’
‘Are you still pretending that the Germans so fooled you that you still don’t know what story to believe in?’
‘The BKA asked me to find someone to keep an eye on an agent whose business in Italy was unclear. I don’t know why they didn’t share the full story from the beginning,’ said Massimiliani.
‘Maybe they didn’t know either, which is what they are claiming after all. I mean, it must happen occasionally in your world that someone accidentally tells you the truth.’
‘Hmm. You could be right. Speaking of which… tell me how you managed to lose Konrad on the autostrada.’
‘I was never behind him.’
‘Thought not. You were carrying his phone.’
‘Yes. He left it behind. I picked it up.’
‘You were deliberately misleading me?’
‘I was,’ said Blume. He explained about Konrad’s disappearance in the early hours of the morning, the phone, his destruction of it.
Massimiliani smiled. ‘I was right about you from the get-go, Blume. You are a devious bastard: the false confession by Maria Itria, the way you walked away from an investigation you knew was going nowhere — or nowhere that would redound to your credit — the way you let Arconti misread you, the way you control what you say on the phone, your air of the innocent abroad in the Tuscolana HQ. What else have you been holding back? Last night you said something about a Madonna.’
‘A torn Madonna,’ said Blume. ‘I was going to tell you, but… you seemed uninterested.’
‘I am interested now.’
Blume told him about his search of Hoffmann’s suitcase and his discovery. He enjoyed seeing that Massimiliani, despite his job, had a lousy poker face. First his expression registered outrage at Blume’s reticence, but it was soon replaced by a hungry look as he sought more details.
Massimiliani drove on in silence for some time, then said, ‘Well, at least we know something the Germans don’t. Even if it’s not important… And presuming it’s true and you’re not making it up for some reason I cannot fathom.’
‘Now that makes me wonder how good you can really be at your job, Massimiliani. There can be no efficiency without at least a little bit of trust. If you never believe anything anyone tells you, then there’s not much point in sending people out to discover things, is there?’
‘We had no previous trust between us.’
‘And we have less now, I think,’ said Blume.
‘Not true. I still say we could work well together. Maybe I can give you some more background next time, clarify your position.’
‘Next time,’ said Blume.
Massimiliani pulled out a Smartphone, tapped it expertly and exchanged a few words with someone, organizing a meeting point and something to do with a car, and hung up.
Blume remembered the Samsung in his pocket. He took it out and set it on the seat. ‘Keep that. I’ve discovered I don’t like Smartphones. I suppose you have been listening in to my conversations with Caterina.’
‘And Caterina would be…?’
‘Oh, you mean Inspector Caterina Mattiola? No, no.’
‘Of course not,’ said Blume. It was getting hotter and clammier as they neared the coast, and the tyres rumbled and thudded unpleasantly over the pocked surface of the autostrada. He imagined Konrad in his camper, probably coming down the other side of the mountain range now, the ageing engine finally able to pick up some speed as it rolled down towards the Ionian sea, the land getting harder and rockier and dustier on the descent. That was part of the upside-down world of the Italian south. In the north, where he liked to holiday, the green was below and the land got harder as you went up, not down.
Blume was worried for Konrad, concerned even for the camper van itself and, in particular, his outsized suitcase, which he could picture sliding across the floor as the van began the descent towards the eastern seaboard. Underneath the stratum of old jackets that had grown too tight and trousers that had, unaccountably, become narrow around the waist and short in the legs, were things he really valued. Had Konrad rifled through his possessions as he had through Konrad’s? If so, he would have come across some prints, a few signed books his father had collected — including three signed first editions of Pirandello plays. He imagined Konrad holding up the amber necklace his mother used to wear, then frowning at the worthless string of wooden worry beads that Blume had had all his life. He had sucked most of the lead paint off them in his childhood, but the greens, blues and yellows were still faintly visible. His father said it was a rosary of sorts, but his mother denied it. The Cat in the Hat Dictionary, which had taught him to read, was in there, too, all the pages loose, the spine cracked by the heat of Rome, the ice of Washington State, and the stress of the movement from one to the other.
Tucked into the corner, lovingly cushioned among his socks and sweaters, were two coffee mugs celebrating the year 1976. One, decorated with a white star formed by the implied space between dark-red and pale-blue lines, celebrated the bicentennial of the USA; the other, which displayed a blue-and-green V-shaped badge with a Viking-style bird’s head, celebrated the first year of the Seattle Seahawks football team. Inside the first mug, wrapped in tissue paper, were his parents’ wedding rings. Inside the other, also wrapped in tissue paper, was a little leather pouch, and inside that was the diamond engagement ring that his father had given his mother. It wasn’t much of a diamond, and it was set off on either side by two blue lapis lazuli gemstones that reminded him of neon lights, and gave the ring a tacky Las Vegas feel. Something that belonged as much to the 1970s as the cup it was hidden in. When he found Konrad, or the camper, or both, the first thing he would do would be to rescue his suitcase.
Massimiliani interrupted his thoughts. ‘Did you deliberately allow Hoffmann to escape?’
‘No. That was just my being careless.’
‘I see. Well, apart from your complete failure to do the few simple things I asked you to, I still think you’ve got potential. If another case came up, would you be interested?’
‘I’d have to think about it,’ said Blume.
‘You’d be better briefed next time.’
‘Almost there,’ said Massimiliani.
‘The point in the road where you make a decision, Blume. Do you want to continue with what’s left of this mission?’
‘Someone needs to stop Konrad.’
‘We might have picked him up before if you hadn’t misdirected us.’
‘That was a mistake.’
‘I don’t really understand why you did that.’
‘Partly because even though he had given me the slip I still wanted to give him a headstart on you and the BKA, as a sort of favour to him. Partly because I thought he might sow some confusion among Curmaci and his friends, partly because I was fed up getting only partial information from you and the BKA, and partly because I was embarrassed to admit I had lost him,’ said Blume.
‘That’s good and honest,’ said Massimiliani. ‘I thought you might want to know Curmaci’s disappeared.’
‘I know,’ said Blume. ‘Caterina told me.’
‘This ship is leaking in all parts. If she was referring to us losing him in Bari, we found him, then lost him again. Someone else is driving the car he rented. Presumably he took another car and is now in Calabria. Do you still hold him responsible for that killing of the insurance broker or whatever he was?’
‘If not, then he is responsible for many other things,’ said Blume.
‘On the day the murder was committed, Curmaci was in Spain. Malaga, which is almost as big a cocaine port as Gioia Tauro. We got this from the Guardia Civil. Then, just as the charred bodies of the presumed perpetrators were found in the Milan hinterland, Curmaci was in Milan, doing a little tour of certain families, including the Flachi. The Flachi specialize in logistics, by the way. You know the companies that deliver stuff you buy on the internet?’
‘I don’t buy online,’ said Blume.
‘How very Italian of you,’ said Massimiliani. ‘But some advanced Italians do trust their credit cards to the web, especially since they invented those ones you top-up with credit. So, Dutch and German logistics companies have moved in and are opening new warehouses in Milan, and the Flachi are there ready to provide for them. Amazon has just opened business in Italy. It’s a growing market.
‘What has this to do with Curmaci?’ asked Blume.
‘We have no idea. That is why it would be nice to leave him in peace and watch developments. After all, Curmaci’s not the person you want. Not really.’
‘Are you asking me to leave him alone?’
‘I wouldn’t advise you to go anywhere near him to begin with. Not without backup. But he’s probably not the person you want.’
‘No boss is ever at the scene of a hit — or only very rarely. The fact he was in Malaga means nothing,’ said Blume. His head was throbbing again, and he realized he had not eaten all day and it was now… he pulled out his phone… two o’clock. The cold air from the air-conditioning was tunnelling into his eyes like two mini whirlwinds, while the rest of his body roasted.
‘From what I hear,’ said Massimiliani, ‘it makes no sense for Curmaci to have ordered the hit on Arconti’s namesake.’
‘From what you hear?’
‘I am not an intelligence analyst, Blume. I don’t think you quite get what I do. Basically I just monitor and report, I don’t explore. I have too many subjects to go into the details on them all.’
‘Try this,’ said Blume. ‘Suppose Curmaci orders an execution that breaks several rules of Ndrangheta etiquette and draws a lot of unwelcome attention to himself, he could manipulate the event so that it would look like a deliberate action against him, couldn’t he? Think about it. The act insults other ’ndrine in Milan and Rome, angers the command in Calabria, endangers Curmaci’s own family, galvanizes investigators, gets the press interested in an organization that is pathologically committed to secrecy. If he asked a friend to carry out that act, the friend — a real friend — would refuse and tell him it was a stupid and self-destructive request. But an enemy posing as a friend might agree to it, seeing it as a way of undermining him. It is so much to Curmaci’s disadvantage that as soon as he claims it was done to harm him, everyone will believe him.’
‘Christ, do you always think like that? I mean, I knew you had a devious mind, but maybe you’re just obsessing about Curmaci at this point? Could it be you need to justify what you did with that transcript?’
‘That’s a possibility,’ said Blume. ‘But maybe his actions are for internal consumption. He wants people to see he has internal enemies, and he wants the internal enemies to declare themselves.’
‘If you’re right, then he must be mighty pleased with you. That false confession by his wife will help him play the role of plot victim even better. What about Konrad Hoffmann, how does he fit in?’
‘Like a gift from God,’ said Blume. ‘Hoffmann appears on the scene, demanding that Megale tell him about a murder Curmaci committed years ago, and threatens him with the result of some inquiry he has been conducting. Megale calls Curmaci, and Curmaci comes up with the idea. He tells Megale to tear a Madonna in half, sign his name, write a message on one half, and send Konrad to Calabria where he’ll meet a man with the other half. That way, they get Konrad not only off their case, but out of the country, into Calabria, exposed and alone. Curmaci pockets the other half of the Madonna.’
‘Why bother with the other hal f?’ asked Massimiliani. ‘All they need to do is to get Konrad to come down to Calabria, and disappear.’
‘If I were Curmaci…’
‘I’d say you and he must be twins separated at birth. You’d have it that Curmaci has been feigning persecution in preparation for an attack. He’s constructed a casus belli for himself.’
‘ Casus foederis,’ corrected Blume.
‘Sorry, it’s Konrad’s influence. He liked to boast about his Latin. Curmaci had constructed a false plot against himself and a pretext for action. The enemy posing as a friend, the person responsible for the murder of the Milanese insurance agent, could easily be Tony Megale. Perhaps he thinks his father has succession plans that favour Curmaci.’
‘He’s not really his father,’ said Massimiliani.
‘Tony Megale is almost certainly not Old Megale’s real son.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘It’s all open-source intelligence, Blume. Court reports, newspaper stories, and even a few TV programmes from the 1990s. There was a whole scandal. They say it is one of the reasons Tony went to Germany, though I think he just went for the money and opportunity. I thought you knew about it.’
‘No. I didn’t think to look into him. Just Curmaci. Tell me the story.’
Massimiliani told him about Tony Megale’s alleged abduction and adoption. As he listened, Blume’s initial annoyance at having overlooked this aspect of the story gave way to a sense of satisfaction at how well it all fitted. Tony, not quite a bastard son, but not far from it, not the natural heir and successor, feared Curmaci, who had exploited him.
The autostrada curved westwards again, back to the coast. He had never entirely outgrown his childish excitement at catching the wink of blue water when the road he was on came close to the sea. But the sea here could only be glimpsed through the empty floors of the incomplete concrete apartment blocks that framed and monumentalized the failure of the south.
A sign for Lamezia Terme appeared, and Massimiliani slowed down. ‘I’m going to pull in just before the entrance road to Via dei due Mari. There should be a car waiting for me.’
‘Meaning you can take this car, head across to the east coast, see if you can’t catch up with Hoffmann. There is an APB out on that camper. No reports of any sightings, though.’
‘You’re not going to the east coast to help me look for him?’
‘Of course not. The operations centre is in Reggio, but maybe I’ll see you in a few days in Polsi, just after the Ndrangheta holds its summit meeting.’
‘Polsi? The sanctuary itsel f?’
‘Yes, madness, I admit, and not my idea. It’s a new policy, a sort of annoy-the-fuckers-till-they-do-something-stupid policy. The authorities are holding a mass and then a celebration in Polsi, claiming back the sacred site for the forces of law and order, as it were. And it’s going to be done in front of some BKA observers, whom I’ll be looking after, and some German journalists. The police from Reggio Calabria and the Locride area are going to go to the same church used the day before by the Ndrangheta for its summit. All in dress uniform. The idea is to celebrate the Archangel Saint Michael, who’s the patron saint of the police and…’
‘Patron saint of the Ndrangheta. I never liked that coincidence,’ said Blume. ‘Who’s behind the idea?’
‘The questore of Reggio Calabria. He comes across as mild-mannered and reasonable but he’s a hard-nosed aggressive bastard.’
‘Good for him.’
‘Maybe,’ said Massimiliani doubtfully. ‘He went on TV and said the police weren’t going to share their patron saint with a bunch of cut-throats and bandits. He said it was time to reclaim the Madonna of Polsi from the criminal overlords. He’s got strong Catholic beliefs, the questore. If you ask me, he’s a bit too keen on the afterlife.’
‘He’s a hero,’ said Blume.
‘I thought you’d be a bit more cynical than that. Are you a big Catholic, too?’
‘No, but I like the idea of prodding the Mafia beast.’
‘First let’s see where that policy gets your German friend.’
He pulled into a layby almost completely obscured by wild oats and reeds. He cut the engine and got out, coming round to Blume’s door. Blume shifted into the driver’s seat, which was unpleasantly warm and slightly damp. Massimiliani opened the passenger door and leaned in.
‘You have made some poor decisions, but you have good instincts, Blume. With a bit of training, and a bit of trust, we’d make a good team.’ He pointed down the road. ‘Go up the mountain to Gerace, down into Locri, head towards San Luca, Africo, Polsi, wherever you think Hoffmann went.’
‘If I take Via dei due Mari, maybe you could send a car over the mountain pass to the south…?’
‘Send a car over Aspromonte, from where, Reggio? It takes all day to get over that mountain, and our resources are deployed to the full. No, Blume, I am not helping the BKA any more than I have already. As for you, finish on your own what you started on your own, but don’t do anything that requires backup.’
A siren suddenly whooped behind them. He looked in the rear-view mirror and saw an unmarked saloon car behind, a magnetic flasher stuck in its roof.
‘There’s my lift. We’ll be in contact soon.’
Massimiliani slammed the door shut, and got into the car behind. Blume drove down the slip road and began to drive east.
‘Sicilian Pistachio,’ said Basile. ‘I think it’s one of my best. The nuts themselves come from Africa and are processed in China, when Sicily can be seen from the other end of this region, but that’s progress for you. I hope you understand my accent?’
Konrad nodded. The ice cream stood untouched in a stainless-steel bowl in front of him, next to the torn image of the Madonna. ‘I am not hungry.’ He pushed the bowl away from himself and the Madonna. ‘You must understand that I am extremely nervous.’
‘Everyone here is nervous, Mr Hoffmann. In all my long years, I have never had such a strange request. In fact, it is so unprecedented that I do not know what to make of it. Could it be you came all this way to make fun of us simple southerners?’
‘No.’ Konrad turned the card over. ‘This is Mr Megale’s signature.’
‘And this is the address Mr Megale gave you?’
‘Mr Basile’s Cafe Bar Gelateria, yes.’
Basile shook his head in an elaborate display of amazement and disbelief.
‘I thought you would have the other half of the card, and that would be a sign of good faith,’ added Konrad.
‘Is that what Domenico said?’
‘No,’ admitted Konrad. ‘He never said who would have the other half.’
‘I understand you do not want to talk to me. Salvatore tells me you want to talk to Agazio Curmaci, who lives in Germany, where you are from. And he also tells me you are a policeman of some sort. If you wanted to talk to Curmaci, you could have arrested him there on false charges, which is the sort of behaviour we have come to expect from the authorities.’
‘I do not want to arrest him. I just want him to answer a few questions.’
‘I have to tell you I have no idea where Curmaci is at this moment. His son was in here the other day. Brave kid. But Agazio.. ’ Basile took the bowl of ice cream and tossed it into the sink. ‘It feels like we are all wasting our time.’
‘I am sorry if this is inconveniencing you.’
‘ Mah.’ Basile waved a generous hand.
A spluttering noise followed by an engine roar caused Konrad to run to the door of the bar. ‘My Hymer. They’re stealing it!’
‘No one is stealing anything from outside my bar. It must just be the traffic police. You’re not allowed to park motor homes in the middle of the town. They’ll be taking it to a campsite for you. I’ll make sure you’re taken there after this.’
‘The traffic police don’t get in and drive away an illegally parked vehicle,’ said Konrad. ‘I have the keys here, so how did they start it?’
Basile shook his head in disgust. ‘The traffic police are such busybodies, you wouldn’t believe it. Are you going out there to stop them?’
Konrad stayed where he was.
‘Good. Now sit down, and let’s see if Curmaci turns up. I haven’t seen him myself in more than a year, and most people seem to be under the impression he is still in Germany, and won’t be making it down for the Feast of the Madonna tomorrow. So I will be surprised and delighted if he walks through that door.’
‘I’d like to wait here for him, if you don’t mind.’
‘Mind? Of course I don’t mind. This is where I live and work, and it’s cool and dry in here. Tell you what, I’ll shut up the bar, make sure no customers come in to disturb us!’
Konrad surveyed the empty room. Even the wrinkled bald man who had been serving at the bar when he entered had vanished. It was just him and Basile. People were passing by in the square outside, but it was as if a force field was keeping them from coming in.
Fifteen minutes later, seated across a table on which stood two empty and unused glasses, Basile said, ‘And do you mind me asking what you want to talk to Curmaci about?’
‘From long ago,’ added Konrad, a hint of apology in his tone.
‘Well, I go back a long way, too. Perhaps I can remember something that will help you and him resolve this?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Konrad. ‘It’s not a pleasant business.’
Ten minutes later, the door opened and four men came in. The last of them was Curmaci. Basile’s face registered no surprise at seeing him, but for the sake of consistency of tone, he professed astonishment. ‘Agazio! Your foreign friend here was right!’
He stood up and went behind the bar. The three men and Curmaci himself were looking at the torn Madonna on the zinc counter. Konrad stood up, and walked over, and leaned on the far end of the bar and watched from a safe distance. Everyone ignored him.
‘What can I get the gentlemen?’ asked Basile.
‘ Cafe corretto with a drop of Sambuco for me,’ said Curmaci, pulling out his wallet. The others all ordered coffee. Curmaci plucked out a 10-euro note and left it on the bar, where it went unheeded by Basile. Curmaci slipped two fingers into an inside fold of his wallet and pulled out a bent piece of thick paper, which he smoothed out on the counter and set beside the torn Madonna. The men looked at it and nodded.
‘A perfect match, how about that!’ said Basile.
Konrad knew then that he was going to die, and that he had known this from the start of his journey.
Curmaci, finally acknowledging Konrad, motioned him over, and pointed at a seat. The other men disappeared into the kitchen. Basile remained behind the bar, at a discreet distance but not out of earshot from where Curmaci and Konrad were now seated.
‘ Wollen Sie lieber Deutsch sprechen? ’ began Curmaci.
‘As a matter of courtesy in my bar, could you please speak Italian,’ said Basile from behind the counter.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Curmaci. ‘Konrad, your Italian is good, isn’t it?’
‘You have built up a file that could be very damaging for Megale and our operations in Germany, I believe? This is what Domenico Megale tells me.’
‘And what would you like us to do about it?’
‘I want you to talk to me,’ said Konrad. ‘First we talk about what I want to talk about, then we talk about what you want to talk about. OK?’
‘That’s a roundabout but valorous way of putting it.’
‘Did you kill Dagmar?’
‘You don’t even give me her last name.’
‘I don’t need to, you know who I am.’
‘But if you put it like that, it sounds too intimate, like we are old friends. You, Dagmar and me. That’s not how it is, though.’
‘We are not friends, no.’
‘Good, that’s cleared that up,’ said Curmaci, with a quick glance at Basile who was quietly rearranging a stack of cappuccino cups balanced on top of the cream-coloured Gaggia espresso machine. ‘Her surname was Schiefer, and I shot her dead in 1993 in execution of a direct order from Domenico Megale, who went to prison as a result of her attempts to impress her superiors. Do you really want to hear this story?’
‘Very well. She had gone to the Edeka supermarket near her house. Her parents’ house. She still lived with them. I remember she had chestnuts in her shopping. It’s funny the incidental details that come to mind even after so long a time. She had parked her bike in the car park, and we pulled up. Our driver, who didn’t even speak any German, started asking directions, she came over. I remember she had a big smile on her face. I got out the back, pushed her in. It was so easy, it almost felt like she climbed in willingly. Are you listening?’
‘We went north out of the city in the direction of the airport, then took a right towards Lintorf. We drove down Lintorfer Waldstrasse, which, as you know, is one of the few bits of countryside left around that area. We pulled in off the road, without even bothering to hide the car very much since it was not going to take long. She walked on her own two legs away from the car. I told her I wanted her to walk into the copse of black poplars beside the road, put her back against a tree trunk, then turn to face me, but I shot her in the back of the head as soon as she had taken her first two steps. It wouldn’t have made sense to have to carry the deadweight of the body all the way back from the trees, and doing it that way minimized her suffering and fear. Also there is always the chance of a lucky escape in such circumstances. She might have run.’
Konrad put his head between his knees and retched, bringing up nothing. Basile courteously arrived with a glass of water, set it down before him, then retreated.
‘How many shots?’
‘Two. I don’t remember, to be honest. But it was always two. One to bring the person down, one to make sure.’
‘You didn’t give her a chance to prepare. She would have faced you.’
‘She prepared herself in the car. I could feel it. But even if she didn’t, it’s not my job to prepare people.’
‘You remembered the chestnuts. Did she mention my name?’
‘How would I be expected to remember a thing like that?’
‘You remembered the chestnut. Did she beg for her life?’
‘I can’t remember. Probably.’
‘Did she mention her parents?’
Curmaci shrugged apologetically. ‘Again, I can’t remember. Parents, mothers in particular, children — if there are any — and God. These are common themes among victims.’
Konrad straightened up. ‘And the body? Where is she?’
‘I didn’t oversee the disposal. Even if I knew, do you really want the details? They will have cut off the four limbs, dissolved her parts in acid, removed the teeth and bone fragments after three days, crushed them, tossed them into several skips. The liquefied body could have gone anywhere. There’s an industrial park near Neuss we used. It’s near the river. That’s where it will have been done.’
‘Are you telling me the truth?’
‘Does it sound like I am holding anything back?’
‘So there is no body and no resting place?’
‘No. You know how it is… Madonna mia, show some courage, Hoffmann. What sort of man weeps for news that is a generation old?’
‘If I would cry, but I am not, I would not be ashamed. I would be crying for the parents, too.’
Curmaci glanced back at Basile, now straightening the packets of sugar and artificial sweeteners. ‘When he gave you that torn Madonna, did you think Old Megale was making a move against me?’
‘It is what I hoped, yes,’ said Konrad. ‘I promised him that if you were killed, I would destroy the evidence I have gathered, eliminate every trace of my investigation, and leave the police force.’
‘And you believed he would order that?’
‘I am an excellent investigator and I have a good mind. But sometimes hope obfuscates even a fine intellect. It did not occur to me until now that the torn Madonna will have been your idea. Megale is not so subtle. He is just an ignorant pig. I had hopes which were unrealistic.’
‘You realize I did not need to tell you anything? I did you a favour.’
‘You enjoyed the telling. You knew it would be a torture for me.’
‘Speaking of torture,’ said Curmaci, ‘how can you be persuaded to get rid of that evidence you have built up on money laundering?’
‘Not just that,’ said Hoffmann defiantly. ‘I know about your operations through Rotterdam into Duisburg. Plus several other things. Hotels in Provence, housing projects outside Dresden. I have a lot of stuff.’
‘What will it be: money to buy your silence; threats against people you love? You tell me, Hoffmann.’
‘I have no one. No family, no parents, no colleagues who are friends.’
‘ Frei aber einsam. What about Dagmar’s parents?’
‘You can’t hurt them any more.’
‘Well, that can be tested. But it seems to me the easiest thing to do would be for you to disappear, unless you can give me a better idea.’
‘I have sent the evidence to myself multiple times, including by parcel post to the office. If something happens to me, my colleagues will eventually get around to looking at my files. The same files are also attached to an email stored on a site called Time Cave. They’ll start arriving in various inboxes in the future unless I go to my account and cancel them from the outbox.’
‘You have everything covered.’ Curmaci stood up. ‘It seems the only choice we have is to let you go and hope for the best. If we do that, can we have your word that you will hold back on these revelations?’
‘Yes,’ said Konrad.
‘But you didn’t get the revenge you were seeking, did you?’
‘At least I got some information.’
Basile came out from behind the bar, and retrieved Konrad’s glass, and placed it out of harm’s way. The three men who had come in earlier emerged from the kitchen. Two stood behind him, Basile, Curmaci and the other in front.
‘I think your specialization in the Camorra has misled you, Hoffmann,’ said Curmaci. ‘But I don’t think even the feckless Neapolitans would allow you to come down from Germany, sit in the bar of a capo, and threaten the Society. But us? Have you even read anything about our history?’
‘I read a lot.’
‘You understood nothing, then. We always put honour before money. If you don’t understand the word “honour”, think of it as a willingness to invest in long-term reputation and goodwill at the cost of short-term benefits. That’s why the South Americans trust us so much. We will sever our own limbs rather than be seen to give in to threats. There are countless examples of us sacrificing huge business empires built up over years merely for the sake of reputation. You will have noted that fact while studying our Society?’
Konrad nodded, unable to speak. He needed the water Basile had taken from him.
‘Your naivety is unbelievable.’
Konrad put up no resistance as they steered him towards the kitchen. The temperature in there was cool and the air was scented with sugar and cleaning alcohol. The ice-cream makers looked like woodchip stoves, and they gleamed. A black rubber hose was attached to the tap above the double sink, and lay coiled on the white tiles that had recently been washed clean and were still slightly slippery. Not quite now, he thought. It would not be in this clean kitchen, the very place the boss himself worked.
But once again, Konrad had misread the situation.
It was years since Blume had been in this part of the country. After an initial section of squalor in the form of a prefabricated shopping centre and a clutch of apartment buildings cluttered with balconies, which resembled makeshift spectator stands erected to observe the spectacle of cars passing by, the road narrowed and straightened and darkened, as sturdy metal fences and tall olive trees appeared on either side. Sometimes, where a new olive grove with younger trees had been planted in the red earth, the light would intensify and the vista open, but then the tall trees and fences returned to reiterate the relentlessly linear plan. It was like driving up the longest ever avenue to a stately home, an impression intensified by the absence of any traffic coming in the opposite direction. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of parked or discarded small boxy Fiats so old they still had number plates with ‘RC’, the abbreviation for Reggio Calabria, marked out in pale orange, a system he wished the country had never abandoned, since it was always interesting and sometimes useful to know from which province the fool in the car in front of you hailed. In some of the groves, the bare earth was already overlaid with dark green nets, ready to catch the olives that would be combed off in a few months by African immigrants or shaken off by vibrating mechanical bars attached to tractors.
The olive oil from here was among his favourite things in the world. He preferred the bitter and complex tones of Calabrian oil to the mellow, fruity Tuscan varieties that Japanese tourists came all the way from Tokyo to taste. No Japanese tourists came down here.
After half an hour, the road started turning and climbing. The repetitive but soothing pale grey and silver of the olive groves gave way to a dark composition of greens and yellows. Blume rolled down the window to get the scent of the pine trees, whose cones and needles lay baking on the bumpy asphalt, sometimes causing the wheels to lose grip. Similar to olive trees, but taller and more sober, holm oaks stood behind thickets of juniper and birch, a tree he had always associated with the cool north. Yet here it was, perfectly at home. Hazels, hornbeams and green alder, all heavy, sturdy and oppressive plants linked by chains of ivy, fought for dominance, then fell back as the road continued to climb. Just when he thought he had seen the last of the taller trees, the road dipped downwards and suddenly he found himself driving through a forest of ancient beeches whose rippled leaves fended off the sun so well that the air was damp and mushroom-scented.
As the trees finally began to give way to the increasing altitude and the bushes turned into shrubs, he was able, thanks also to the added height of the car he was driving, to see how insidious the steep banks on the roadside were. Now that he was nearing upper reaches of the range, the vistas he had glimpsed through the side window lay in front of him. Dozens of mountaintops, the shape of upturned egg boxes or cloche hats, lay before him, their slopes sudden, steep and gleaming. His father had once taught him that painters used lighter colours for the background, darker for the foreground, but the hills before him seemed to increase the depth of their green as they stretched northwards, while the one he was driving across was sand-coloured and dominated by yellow flowers and scratching woody plants.
It would be difficult to paint this landscape without seeming to idealize it, he thought, but the solution to that particular problem of representation soon presented itself in the form of a sudden hamlet made up of a scattering of brutal cement houses, most of them missing a top storey but all equipped with satellite dishes. They were fronted by messy gardens containing stubby Indian figs, discarded plastic bottles of motor oil and rotting cars. The larger houses had McMansion gates, and all the smaller houses had yellow and brown aluminium-framed windows and doors.
These people do not deserve their environment, thought Blume. With Naples, one could always hope for Vesuvius, but here… three cars came racing around the corner so close together they might have been linked by a chain. Suddenly, as if they had been waiting for a secret command, vehicles appeared behind him and in front of him. The empty road was suddenly busy. He checked the time. Four o’clock. The Ionian sea lay before him; the town of Locri, a modern excrescence of the Norman citadel of Gerace, which he had just driven through without stopping, was visible in the distance.
The escarpments on either side of the road were shallower now, but he still would not want to find himself skidding down one. How had Konrad fared with his big camper van? Two oncoming cars flashed their lights at him. What were they doing? Challenging him to move over, closer to the edge of the road, to hog the middle less? Or were they defying the authority of the state, mocking him in his police car? A policeman alone in a marked vehicle was rare anywhere in the country, down here it may never have been seen. He glanced in his rear mirror and saw the car behind him flash its light. Just friends greeting each other. He was being paranoiac.
He reached a ribbon of breeze-block buildings that, he supposed, represented the outskirts of Locri. A car passed in the opposite direction without flashing its lights, the driver not even looking at him. Blume checked the wing mirror to see if anyone was behind. Nothing. He eased back in his seat, pressed gently on the accelerator when suddenly a shape shot out from the side of the road and hurled itself in front of him. The object had come at lightning speed from the bushes on to the road, but now seemed magnetized and immobile as it stood there, teeth bared, eyes flashing, and Blume was already spinning the wheel. It was only as his foot reached the brake pedal that the word ‘dog’ formed itself in his conscious mind, but he was already spinning furiously in the opposite direction to avoid a patch of small trees.
He managed to bring the car to a halt, then got out, and looked back down the road. He had not felt any impact, but if he had hit the beast, an ugly thing it had been, then it would be finished off by the traffic behind. But he saw no one swerve or slow down, heard no pitiful yelps or sickening crunch.
The vehicles he was watching slowed down as they passed, as if Blume were an interesting crash. Within three minutes, the oncoming traffic, as well as the cars behind him, had slowed to a crawl, and Blume realized that with his police-marked SUV on the side of the road, he had inadvertently set up a one-man checkpoint. He started waving the traffic past.
Finally, a green Mercedes estate car slowed down and the driver, a woman with piercing blue eyes and long silky hair that looked all the better for being dyed blonde, spoke to him.
‘ Ma ’cca sei ’mbarru.’
‘You’re in the way and you’re in the wrong place. Go on for about a kilometre, first left, third right. That’s where it is.’
‘Where what is?’ But she had driven on, waving an elegant hand, made languorous by the weight of golden bracelets.
Blume climbed back into his Range Rover, drove it to the side of the road, and called Caterina.
‘Where are you?’ she said without so much as a greeting.
‘Locri. At last.’
‘Have you gone to Maria Itria?’
‘No. I haven’t even got to the town proper yet.’
‘Then you’re right next to where she lives. You came in by Highway 111, right?’
‘Yes,’ said Blume.
‘Follow it down to Via Garibaldi, then on to the Provincial Road, first house after a Sidis food mart, number 45. On Google Street View it has a red gate. That may have changed.’
‘Give me a bit of time,’ said Blume. ‘It’s still not my priority and I think it might be an ill-advised visit.’
‘It almost certainly is, but you shouldn’t have started this thing. Just check. You don’t have to go in. Check from a distance, bring backup from the town. Has anyone spoken to the local magistrate ye