"Northern Italy's answer to Inspector Montalbano" Alessandro Baricco
September 2008. Commissario Arcadipane arrives at the scene of a macabre discovery: the bones of twelve men and women buried in the countryside near Torino.
By the next morning, a task force specialising in mass graves from WWII is already in place. But something doesn't feel right: one of the femurs shows signs of an operation that couldn't have taken place before the seventies.
Suspecting a cover-up, Arcadipane launches his own investigation, enlisting his old mentor, Corso Bramard, long retired, and Isa, a young officer still haunted by the unexplained death of her father.
These mismatched allies - one at last at peace, one jaded to the point of breakdown and one under a permanent disciplinary cloud - will unveil a cruel political conspiracy that someone wants covered up for the second time.
Translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella
Release date: April 28, 2022
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Print pages: 320
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Young Beasts at Play
Five young people are walking along a pavement in the suburbs.
Two o’clock in the morning. A black leather jacket; a beige corduroy trench coat; a grey overcoat too short for the boy wearing it; a parka; a dark knitted sweater. The boy in the overcoat has a bag on his shoulder. The bag is magenta in colour, halfway between red and blue; there are two white numbers stamped on it. Walking beside him is the only girl. She is wearing the sweater and is more relaxed than the others.
They turn into a narrow, badly lit street. The windows of the surrounding houses and apartment blocks show no lights, the shutters of the shops are closed, and nothing can be heard but a tram passing down Corso Giulio.
“Perhaps we should think again about this,” the boy in the overcoat says. The girl takes his hand. No-one slows down or lifts their eyes from the pavement.
A shabby old two-storey building has three lattice windows overlooking the road, and an oval sign above its front door that is difficult to read. No lights or sign of movement from the inside.
“Give the bag to me,” says the boy in the leather jacket.
The boy in the overcoat holds the bag out to him, and its clasp opens with a snap.
“Edo and Luciano, you two watch the windows. Nini and I will throw them in. Stefano, go to the corner and keep an eye on the road.”
Stefano slings the now empty bag back on his shoulder. The girl and the others wait for him to move as instructed. He limps to the corner, then looks towards the far-off lights. After a few seconds comes a soft explosion followed by the sound of breaking windows, then a second, even softer explosion.
The boy at the corner turns and the other four run towards him, while behind them yellow reflections begin to spread across the asphalt. He too begins to run. After a few metres the others catch him up. Their collective steps strike the road loudly.
Expectant, precise and unambiguous.
That is how young animals play, before they discover their claws were never meant for playing.
“Stop! No way through.”
Arcadipane takes the cigarette from his lips and stares at the massive figure in a yellow cape blocking his way. A man much taller than himself, even with his boots buried in the mud.
The man gives this question some thought. An imprecise question that gives Arcadipane time to observe a nose bent to the right from some ancient fracture, oriental cheekbones, and a not entirely unattractive scent of mixed aniseed and tobacco. The man looks about thirty or thirty-five years old.
“They told me not to let anyone through,” insists the man from under his hood, raising his voice to be heard against the rain.
Arcadipane puts his cigarette back between his lips, but the filter is now full of water. He throws it away and watches as it disappears into the mud, the raindrops striking it as precisely as a hammer hitting the broad head of a nail.
“They told you . . . who told you?”
The subconscious mind of the man registers authoritative overtones in this question and passes this information to his conscious mind, which has second thoughts about this little thickset guy with no umbrella, whom he has just seen get out of a well-kept Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio, looking inoffensive both in physique and rank.
“It was the man in the raincoat who told me, the commissario,” the man says, turning to indicate something. “He said not to let anyone through.”
Through the veil of rain Arcadipane can distinguish the backs of four motionless figures gazing intently at the ground. Not far off are a bulldozer, a lorry and a crane. In the background the mountains and the sky seem as if made from some identical substance: melancholy, inert, suffocating, nostalgic, passive and moribund. “Bloody hell,” he thinks. “Here we go again.” He searches his pocket for a sucai* lozenge amid the fluff at the bottom. He puts the sweet into his mouth and begins to chew. Gradually, the lump blocking his throat dissolves. He becomes newly aware of the cold, of the acidity of the coffee he drank half an hour earlier at a motorway snack bar, and of the reason he is now here.
“What are you building here?” he asks.
“We’re not building anything.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“What kind of cables?”
The man puts his hands into his pockets without answering. Arcadipane knows when he is beaten. Unwillingly, he slips his left hand into the sheepskin jacket his in-laws gave him and produces the necessary document. The man looks from the identification pass to Arcadipane, and then back at the pass again.
He opens his arms as if to say, “How was I to know?”
Arcadipane knows the man is really thinking, “Why the hell couldn’t you have said you were police in the first place?” But 366 similar investigations have taught him that even people with nothing to hide never reveal to the police the first thing that comes into their heads. Or even the second. Don’t deceive yourself: rubbish bins can’t empty themselves, or, as Bramard would say: the truth never thrusts itself forward; you have to work hard to find it.
“Well then, what are these cables you are laying?”
“Electric cables,” the man says, “for the railway.”
Arcadipane looks around: grassland and rice fields as far as the eye can see, and a kilometre away the embankment for the new high-speed railway, with a Frecciarossa train passing as silently as a finger over velvet; Milano to Torino in fifty minutes. Much further to the west, a ruined farmhouse. There’s nothing else.
“But it wasn’t me who found them,” the man says.
“Oh no? And who did find them, then?”
“My cousin Nicolae.”
“Your cousin Nicolae. And you are?”
“Roman,” repeats Arcadipane, shifting his gaze to the group behind this big guy. “So one of those men is your cousin. And the other two?”
“The short one’s Vincenzo. The other’s the boss, Signor Coletto. But we called him later.”
Arcadipane nods, searching for the man’s boots with his eyes. Nothing visible above the mud but the plastic-covered end of one of the laces. Who knows what those things are called? If they have any name at all, Mariangela would be sure to know it. So would Bramard. They are the only people who know such things.
“Have you anything else to tell me or shall I go and talk to Signor Coletto?”
The man scratches his several days of blond beard.
“The boss said he needed someone with a licence to operate a crane, so I made a copy of my cousin’s. But now I’ll get into trouble.”
“And . . .”
“As soon as I got to Italy, I did four months for assault. The boss doesn’t know that. He only wants clean people.”
Arcadipane looks down at his own reddened hands, swollen with cold. And at the ribbon round his finger to protect the skin from his wedding ring. He knows this evening he will go home to the woman so much more wide awake than himself who was prepared to take him on, and he will tell her what has been happening, and even before he can have a shower, they’ll be between the sheets together.
He knows this is one of the effects seeing a dead man has on him. Even a man like this one.
But what other people don’t know is that the effect doesn’t last. Even the dead become a habit if they are what you do for a living.
“Last year,” he tells Roman, “we arrested a man who had watched the woman next door bury something in her garden regularly on the sixth day of every month. He decided this must be her pension. So one day when he needed money, he went to the old lady, smashed her head in with a monkey wrench and started digging. Do you know what he found?”
Roman stares at him with the bland if hostile expression of one who, only recently arrived in Italy and nervous and lonely, does everything his friends suggest he should, such as getting into fights in bars, staring at displays of naked girls and longing to acquire a used BMW; until some little woman more wide awake than him decides for some reason of her own to take on this country bumpkin who wakes each morning slobbering onto his pillow and thirsting for milk.
Arcadipane gives him the answer: “What he found was three hundred and twelve little ceramic dogs. They had been coming to her in the post once a month.”
But Roman’s mind is far away, concentrating on heavy structural steelwork, on levers and presses, counterweights and pulleys.
“Well, what shall I tell him, then? About the licence and . . . everything else?”
Arcadipane pauses before replying.
“Can I give you a bit of advice?”
The other nods.
“First, never hide anything unless you have a reason for it. And secondly, if you assume other people are more intelligent than you are, you’ll find you won’t make many mistakes. Now could you please get out of my way?”
Roman moves aside. Arcadipane places his shoes in the massive prints left by the man’s feet and presses on. Another twenty metres of water and mud to reach the little group beyond him.
“Good evening, commissario.”
Arcadipane settles beside his assistant Pedrelli without bothering to answer his greeting. He has no need to look at the man to know he is fifty-one years old and weighs as many kilos. He has bristly hair and a chronic ulcer, and they have had nothing in common for the last sixteen years.
“And our men?”
“I sent them away to buy nylon sheets,” Pedrelli says. “The director and I have had the idea of building a shelter and pumping the water away from the area where we made the find.”
Arcadipane looks at the “director”, Signor Coletto, in his waterproof trousers and practical windcheater; he had always thought those guys with beauty spots on playbills advertising Piedmontese comedies didn’t exist in real life, but clearly . . .
“We have a pump we can attach to the caterpillar,” Coletto says. “But so long as the trench keeps filling with rain . . .”
Arcadipane nods, struck by the man’s accent. He moves on to the two wearing yellow capes: Nicolae is a little fatter than his cousin but of the same basic type, but the other man, Vincenzo, is about fifty, lean, malarial, and Sicilian enough to know keeping your mouth shut is not a sin.
“So?” Arcadipane says, indicating the hole full of water these four men are keeping an eye on.
Pedrelli pulls out a notebook, but two big blue circles suddenly explode on his page of carefully written notes. He quickly puts the notebook away again and reverts to memory.
“Towards twelve o’clock, the worker Nicolae Popescu noticed a human cranium where they were digging and told the operator to stop. They called Signor Coletto, the foreman, who came over to have a look and then informed us.”
Arcadipane scans the faces under the hoods. No-one denies this or adds anything to it. He turns to the foreman.
“Then why didn’t you call the carabinieri? There’s a police station not far from here.”
“My son-in-law’s a policeman.” The other man shrugs. “He says that’s always the best thing to do.”
Arcadipane looks down into the pool, which is the size and colour of a small dining room. The water in it is still rising, and the rain is marking the pool with a whole alphabet of small shapes.
“Are they under there?”
“No, commissario. The usual procedure in such cases is to leave things where they are, but the workers thought that, left on the spot . . .”
“We moved them into the container,” summarises the man who looks as if he has had malaria.
Arcadipane follows his gaze to the grey prefabricated structure. There is no tree, bush or other vegetable presence of any sort near it that the rain could either attack or nourish.
“When was the last exam for promotion to commissario, Pedrelli? A year ago?”
“Last February, commissario.”
Arcadipane reaches into his pocket, pulls out a sucai, and throws it into his mouth. At that moment the slow interregional train clatters past. This one takes an hour and fifty minutes to reach Milano.
“Next time I’ll be sure to fail that exam myself,” he says, making off, “since you are so anxious to call yourself commissario.”
* Sucai is the word the Piedmontese use to describe a lozenge typical of their region; they are black cubes covered with sugar and taste of sweet liquorice.
Kneeling on the floor of the container, Sarace taps the thigh bone, the iliac crest and the ischium with his ballpoint pen, then lifts a couple of vertebrae closer to his myopic eyes, which are magnified by his blue-tinged lenses.
He examines with detachment those structures that once held life in its most intense, soft and mysterious form, exploring inside them, turning them over and extracting a sound like hollow wood, before putting them back on the blanket.
“A fine collection, don’t you think?” He indicates the whole set of bones.
Arcadipane, crouching opposite, looks at the long arm and leg bones laid out by the workmen together with a pelvis, spine and cranium to give some idea of a complete figure. On one side is a little pile of small bones they had no idea what to do with.
“Like Andorra and Liechtenstein,” Sarace remarks. “If you have no interest in banks, you never know where to find them on the map.”
Arcadipane rubs his hands on his wet trousers, trying to restore a little warmth to thighs made numb by the cold and his awkward position kneeling on the floor. In addition to himself and Sarace and the arbitrarily assembled collection of bones in front of them, the container they are sitting in is furnished with a bare desk, a basket, an unlit kerosene stove and a small cupboard. On the walls are two maps of the area with cadastral surveys sketched in felt pen. Not a place where anyone would wish to spend the weekend.
Sarace pulls off his latex gloves, screws them up in a ball and throws them into the basket beside the desk.
“Male, young, dead. Since the cranium has a precise hole in the occipital region, it is not hard to imagine that the last thing he would have heard would have been a point-blank shot.”
Arcadipane, after ten years’ experience of working with Sarace, knows the man never likes to hazard premature guesses, but he also knows that at weekends Sarace sings with a group called The Disciples of Boom and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of his hairstyle. But even so he ventures to ask: “When do you think it happened?”
“1986,” Sarace says. “A Tuesday in late spring.”
Arcadipane watches him snigger and slips his pen back into his raincoat pocket.
“For all I know,” Sarace continues, “this man may equally well have been dead twenty years, or maybe eighty. It all depends on how deep down he was found, on the humidity, the nature of the ground, and whether he was inside a coffin or any other sort of box. Do you still have that woman Alessandra working in your lab?”
“Not a pin-up to go on my calendar, but she certainly knows her job . . . Take our friend to her with a bit of the soil in which he was found, and something may emerge. It’s always difficult with bones but you can always hazard a guess. So long as you take the trouble to complete the correct form.”
Arcadipane looks up.
Once sure of his attention, Sarace leans towards the leather bag sagging at his side like an elderly and dysplastic cocker spaniel.
“This is the official form on which we record discoveries that may date back to the war years.” It has four pages. “Fill it in, put the bones in a box, attach the form to the box and send the whole lot off to the appropriate office, where they will check to see if it relates to any reports of disappearances in the area during the war or shortly afterwards. If no attribution can be found, we’ll just have yet another unknown death on our hands. On the other hand, if we can find a descendant who would like to fill an empty space in the family vault, the bones can be given a fine funeral. Either way, you and I are now free to go home and have a nice shower.”
Arcadipane looks at the bones. They are not white or even yellow, but a pale pistachio green.
“You think they could really . . .”
“Eight times out of ten.”
Arcadipane rubs his temples and the nape of his neck. For some days now he has had the feeling of a heavy book pressing on the base of his skull between two nerves at the back of his neck.
“A bloody awful day.” He raises his shoulders. “Still, it may be worth . . .”
Sarace waits to see whether Arcadipane has got the point, and if he has, to give him time if he wants to change his mind. Then, with a weak smile, he rises to his feet.
“Mariangela and the children?” he asks, beginning to change out of his work clothes.
“They’re all fine.”
“And Mariangela’s taking exams at the moment?”
“Every six months. That’s how it works. Incidentally, she keeps asking me to say thank you.”
Sarace smacks his lips as if to dismiss that as nothing, then, carefully protecting his elaborate hairdo with one hand, he lowers an oilcloth hood over the voluminous glittering banana-like structure on his head. Even under the neon light, his angular face still has the happy-go-lucky sheen of the years when he first started working on his appearance.
“I’ll take the car and get the stuff. Shall I send you Pedrelli?”
When Sarace opens the door, the container is suddenly filled with a din of machinery, of voices insisting something must be moved, of heavy rain still beating down, and of the wailing of an old-style rip-start engine determined not to start; then the door closes after him, and Arcadipane is once more aware he is alone between four silent walls.
He goes to the desk, rests his bottom against its smooth edge and pulls out his cigarette packet. It is damp, making it difficult to light a cigarette. The bones lie on the floor, silent, enigmatic and pistachio green.
The remains of some soldier, whether fascist or partisan, he thinks, but young and with his head full of bullshit, and then what happened? Right or wrong, just destined to rot away in the ground . . . “Bloody hell.”
Reaching into his pocket, he realises he is weeping and pauses. For a good couple of minutes, he enjoys the feeling of warm tears on his face though they are already cold by the time they get down to his neck, then he dries his nose on his sleeve, takes a visiting card from his back pocket and dials the number on his mobile.
“Yes.” A woman answers.
“I’m looking for Doctor Ariel.”
“That’s me and I’m not a doctor.”
Arcadipane takes a slow breath.
“It’s all quite normal,” the woman says before he can answer. “Tartara likes to imagine your face when you realise I’m a woman. In any case he’s an old fool with his best years long behind him. But he did warn me you would ring. You’re the one with the strange name, aren’t you? The policeman?”
“Arcadipane. You know, seventy-five per cent of phone conversations occur between people who will never in fact speak to each other on any other occasion. However, I’m on call at the moment, so I can’t discuss your problem now, though it sounds interesting. Would you like to make an appointment?”
A knock on the door. Arcadipane blows out smoke and puts his hand over the phone.
“Just a moment!”
When he brings the phone back to his ear the woman asks, “Are you crying?”
“Have you been taking drugs?”
“So do you want this appointment?”
“Come in, Christ, come in!”
Pedrelli opens the door and enters.
“What’s going on?” the woman asks on the phone.
“Nothing. Just my work.”
“Are you hitting someone?”
“Why on earth should I do that?”
“But that is what you do, isn’t it? You drive with the horn blaring, take fingerprints and hit people to make them speak. ‘Own up, you bastard! Your friends have already given you away. Do you want them to get you locked up for twenty years?’”
Arcadipane stares at Pedrelli who is staring at the bones on the blanket while the bones are staring at the neon light suspended from the ceiling.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at four p.m.,” says the woman. “My address is on the card that man Tartara gave you. Don’t be late, we’ll only have fifty minutes.” She rang off.
Arcadipane smooths down the few hairs that form a crown round his head, as if just coming home after a long walk in a howling wind.
“Please excuse me, sir,” Pedrelli begins. “I had no idea . . .”
Arcadipane lifts a hand to stop him.
“Check if anything jumps out of it: personal objects, clothes, cartridge cases, anything.”
Arcadipane studies the Savoyard elegance of his deputy, which neither tiredness, soaked clothes nor muddy shoes can compromise.
When they first met, Arcadipane was twenty-three and already Bramard’s right-hand man, while Pedrelli was a junior police officer two years older than him, who had just been sent to their office to be given something to do after being transferred to Torino from Genova. Arcadipane had watched him perform the first jobs he had been given efficiently and taken note of his short hair and clean, pale face, a real lesson. Then they had made him Arcadipane’s deputy as part of the ritual round at headquarters.
“Did you put in a request for a cretin?” Arcadipane had asked Bramard when they were alone together.
Bramard had poured himself some tea and continued scrutinising some files without answering. But that evening, setting off as usual without saying goodbye, Bramard had left open on his desk The Encyclopedia of the Dog, a book it was his habit to consult religiously after each interrogation and in free moments. “Tomorrow have a desk prepared here in the office for the new man,” he had said as he put on his coat.
Bramard, a man Arcadipane would never understand but who would teach him everything he would ever learn about people and their criminal tendencies, had then gone home, while he himself had got up and gone over to Bramard’s desk.
The encyclopedia was lying open at a page showing a brown dog with nothing proud, intelligent or threatening about him. An ordinary dog, in fact, of medium size.
“A frank, well-behaved dog,” he read in the book, “stable and well balanced, an effective cowherd and a wonderful companion, always at his master’s side, if a little shy of strangers. Despite his delicate and unobtrusive manner, he is afraid of nothing, and thanks to his tenacious nature, can even prove himself a daring hunter. If you desire to teach him sweetness and patience, you will find him extremely receptive to being trained.”
Arcadipane now observes Pedrelli standing there in front of him: dripping with rain, eyes lowered, short hair, face still lacking in distinction. Exactly as he always had been, except that now both were twenty-seven years older.
“Do you know what I used to say when I went as Bramard’s deputy to on-the-spot investigations?”
Pedrelli looks up interrogatively.
“That I was the person responsible,” Arcadipane says, extinguishing his cigarette against the sole of his shoe. “When others know you’re the person responsible, they pay attention to you.”
“Just imagine,” Pedrelli grumbles. “That can’t be the case . . . When you and I have been putting up with each other all these years.”
Arcadipane forces a smile. So what? He looks through one of the container’s two little plexiglass windows: just above the line of the mountains, a break is now dancing in the clouds, like a yellow candle in the dark depths of a church.
“Thirty years,” he muses.
Thirty years of murders, inquests, competitions, retirements, colleagues, heaps of paper, new arrivals, changes of office, false tracks, reports, sentences, delusions, witnesses, children, the occasional commendation, trials, bouts of bronchitis, newspaper articles, antacids, impressions, blowouts, disciplinary reports, autopsies, interceptions, political quarrels and endless, sleepy, opiate hours of waiting when there’s absolutely fuck all you can do except wait.
The clouds close. Even that single candle at the far end of the church has gone out.
The rain is still falling, beating more heavily than ever on the container roof.
“Commissario, sir. The foreman wants to know when they can start work again.”
Arcadipane looks at the bones on the grey blanket.
“Tell him to piss off. Now let’s you and me go and have some coffee.”
Once home he goes straight to the kitchen, opens the fridge and drinks a mouthful of fizzy water straight from the bottle. There’s a note on the table. “At supper we wanted to discuss something very important, but you didn’t come home. Can we talk at breakfast? Very urgent. Loredana and Giovanni.”
Arcadipane tries to prop the note back against the fruit basket where he found it, then goes silently to his room, undresses and lies down on his back with his hands behind his head, happy to rest his upper body.
“What’s the time?” Mariangela asks, with a half yawn.
“It’s already after two.”
Without moving, she lays her hand on him.
“You’re frozen. You must have been out all day in the rain.”
He pulls his legs back a little so as not to touch the big, soft buttocks under her nightie.
“Rain?” he says. “It was twenty degrees, I even caught a bit of sun.”
She giggles, making the mattress vibrate. No need to tell her again the story of his 366 on-the-spot investigations . . . she knows all about that.
“What do those two want?” he asks.
“Let’s keep that as a surprise for you. But you’ve had a hot shower, haven’t you?”
“It would help you to relax.”
“And where would that leave me?”
She says nothing. It is a big bedroom, not overcrowded with furniture: a four-seasons wardrobe, two not-quite-antique chairs and a chest of drawers. Everything more than twenty years old except the bedside lamps. Bought at IKEA. “We need some lighting with a mobile stem.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I read at night, and you don’t.”
“If I smell bad, I’ll go and have a shower.”
She slips a thumb into his pants.
“Not now, you’ll make too much noise,” she says, grasping his genitals as if to prevent him getting out of bed. “Have you eaten?”
“We were working out of town. I ate on the way back.”
“Absolute rubbish, I’m sure.”
“A motorway snack bar. The usual thing.”
“I left you some . . .”
“Yes, I know, I put it in the fridge. Is all OK here?”
“Then shall we go to sleep now?”
She nods, rubs her head on the pillow and pulls her hand out of his pants. He concentrates on the weak glimmer of the little chain round her neck. As her breath gradually grows slower, a strip of light climbs the sheet and the merino-wool blanket they bought at a demonstration when the children were still small and begins to cross the well-worn parquet as far as the cleft dividing the shutters of the French window. Beyond them are the apartment blocks, cars, signboards and pavements of this neighbourhood, where he has been living since boyhood.
About a year ago, a petition was lodged to double the number of local street lamps for the sake of security. He knew it would achieve nothing, but he signed it all the same. He was reluctant to take the trouble simply because it was his job. “In any case it will lead nowhere,” he had told himself.
But within ten months they got forty-five new street lamps. Energy-saving ones that gave a yellow light.
Now, in order to be able to sleep, residents with old-fashioned shutters had to adjust them or replace them with roll-up blinds, at their own expense. Just what he had expected. Some people moved away. Territorial groups began forming in the area: Albanians, Romanians, Nigerians, even Chinese. When you move one piece on the chessboard . . . The only long-established residents who did move were five or six tarts past their first youth, since, with these powerful new street lamps, potential customers now needed no more than a glance to detect the artifice required to draw attention to essential parts of their bodies previously in need of no special support. Of course, they still had affectionate clients who had known them for years, but when you have. . .
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