Death in August: A Novelby Marco Vichi
Florence, summer 1963. Inspector Bordelli is one of the few policemen left in the deserted city. He spends his days on routine work and his nights tormented by the heat and mosquitoes. Suddenly one night, a telephone call/b>/b>
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A new crime series full of Italian flavor—the first novel in the Inspector Bordelli series, set in 1960s Florence
Florence, summer 1963. Inspector Bordelli is one of the few policemen left in the deserted city. He spends his days on routine work and his nights tormented by the heat and mosquitoes. Suddenly one night, a telephone call gives him a new sense of purpose: the suspected death of a wealthy signora. Bordelli rushes to her hilltop villa and picks the locks. The old woman is lying on her bed—apparently killed by an asthma attack, though her medicine has been left untouched. With the help of his young protégé, the victim’s eccentric brother, and a semi-retired petty thief, the inspector begins a murder investigation. Each suspect has a solid alibi, but there is something that doesn’t quite add up . . .
Read an Excerpt
Death in August
By MARCO VICHI
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Marco Vichi
All rights reserved.
Florence, Summer 1963
Inspector Bordelli entered his office at eight o'clock in the morning after an almost sleepless night, spent tossing and turning between sweat-soaked sheets. These were the first days of August, hot and muggy, without a breath of wind. And the nights were even more humid and unhealthy. But at least the city was deserted, the cars few and far between, the silence almost total. The beaches, on the other hand, were noisy and full of peeling bodies. Every umbrella had its transistor radio, every child a little bucket.
Before even sitting down, Bordelli spotted a typewritten sheet of paper on his desk and craned his neck to see what it was about. He noticed that it was typed very neatly, clean and precise, the lines nice and even, with nothing crossed out. He was astonished to see that it was a routine report. There was nobody he knew at police headquarters capable of drafting a report like that. Just as he started reading it, somebody knocked at the door. Mugnai's round head appeared.
'Dr Inzipone wants you, Inspector,' he said.
'Oh, shit ...' said Bordelli, squirming. Inzipone was Commissioner of Police. He always sent for Bordelli at the worst moments. It was a good thing the commissioner was about to go on holiday too. The inspector stood up from his chair with a wheeze and went and knocked at the commissioner's door. Inzipone greeted him with an odd smile.
'Sit down, Bordelli, I've got something to tell you.' The inspector sat down listlessly and made himself comfortable. The commissioner himself stood up and started walking about, hands clasped behind his back.
'I wanted to have a chat about last Friday's dragnet,' he said.
'I had the report drawn up yesterday.'
'Yes, I know, I've already read it. I just wanted to tell you a couple of things.'
'I'll be clear about this, Bordelli. As I've always said, you are an excellent policeman, but your concept of justice is, well, a bit peculiar.'
'What do you mean?'
Inzipone paused for a moment, to find the right words, and looked out of the window, turning his back to the inspector.
'I mean ... there are laws, my dear Bordelli, and we are paid by our citizens to make sure they are respected. We can't take matters into our own hands; we can't decide when to enforce the law and when not to.'
'I know,' Bordelli said calmly. He couldn't stand all this beating about the bush, this false way of saying things. Inzipone turned round and looked at him.
'During Friday's dragnet, you let a number of offenders get away,' he said drily.
'No, no, Bordelli, you haven't understood what I said – or rather, you've understood all too well. They didn't escape from you; you deliberately set them free, after you'd arrested them.'
'I must be getting old ...'
Inzipone sighed and resumed pacing about the room.
'A thief is always a thief, Bordelli. The courts will decide on the punishment. Don't you think Robin Hood is a little out of date?'
Bordelli started feeling a strange tingling in his hands.
'Dr Inzipone, we're here to enforce the law, that much is clear. But so far I've come across no law that ensures everyone's survival.'
'This has nothing to with politics.'
'Politics? A man who needs to eat wipes his arse with politics.'
'Must you always be so vulgar, Bordelli?'
'Oh, I'm sorry. I thought vulgarity was something else.'
'This is a simple matter of either doing or not doing your duty.'
'I have a duty to myself, too.'
'I realise that. But it's not yours to decide whether thieves go free!'
'I didn't let any thieves go free. I simply released a few poor bastards.'
'That is precisely what I'm trying to say. It is not your decision to—'
'Let me tell you something, Dr Inzipone. When I returned from the war, I hoped I had done my small part to liberate Italy from the shit we were in; but now all I see is mountains of shit, everywhere ...'
'We all know about your great valour during the war, Bordelli.'
'Cut the crap. You know as well as I do that we're worse off now.'
'That's a bit of an exaggeration ...'
'I hate dragnets, Dr Inzipone, they remind me of the Fascists' round-ups. But if I have to take part in them, I'm certainly not going to put hungry people in jail.'
Inzipone threw up his hands, resigned.
'I've turned a blind eye to you many times, Bordelli. But this is happening a little too often.'
'What am I supposed to say? That I'll be a good boy? Which means, I'll get tough with the poor?'
'You have a way, Bordelli, of always saying the most irritating things.'
'Believe me, I don't mean to. Can I go now? I've got a couple of beggars to hang.'
Inzipone eyed him, clenching his teeth. He knew there was little he could do about Bordelli's methods, because he was, after all, an excellent inspector, he was loved by the entire department, and everybody knew that, in the end, he was right. There was too much poverty about.
* * *
Bordelli returned to his office. A few minutes later, Mugnai knocked again.
'Yes, thanks. Listen, who wrote this?' he asked, waving in the air the stellar report he had found on his desk.
'A new guy, Inspector. Piras is the name.'
'From head to toe.'
'Send him in to me, if you would.'
'Immediately, or with the coffee?'
'With the coffee.'
'All right, Inspector.'
Mugnai disappeared. Before returning to the report, Bordelli got up, opened the windows and half closed the shutters. As he did every summer, he thought it would be nice if all the holidaymakers decided en masse never to return to town. There would be everlasting peace.
He sat back down and picked up the report. He read it all in one go, quickly scanning the lines. It was about a car accident. Normally such matters were assigned to Vaccarezza, but in August the department was half empty. Bordelli took care not to take any time off during this period. He preferred battling the mosquitoes in the deserted city to finding himself alone as a dog on a crowded holiday beach wanting nothing more than to go home, where he might find a little peace. And this was why the report of an ordinary car accident had been put on his desk.
Somebody knocked again, and the door opened. On the threshold stood a lad Bordelli had never seen before, holding an espresso cup and saucer.
'You sent for me, Inspector?' The intonation was typically Sardinian: bouncy, proud, almost aggressive.
'Are you Piras?'
'Come in ...'
He was young and handsome, with a bony face, two dark, intense eyes, short but well built. On the whole, a likable sort.
'Mugnai told me to bring you this,' he said, indicating the coffee.
'Thanks,' said Bordelli, still looking at him. Piras set the little cup on the desk and remained standing.
'Where are you from, Piras? I mean, what part of Sardinia?'
'A little town near Oristano.'
'But what's it called? Come on, don't keep standing, have a seat.'
'Thanks, Inspector. I'm from Bonacardo.'
Bordelli leaned forward and looked him straight in the eye.
'Piras, from Bonacardo ... Don't tell me your father's name is Gavino.'
'That's exactly right, Inspector. His name is Gavino.'
The inspector ran a hand over his face, shaking his head.
'It's not possible,' he said to himself.
'Is anything wrong, Inspector?' asked Piras, concerned. Bordelli didn't reply. He merely stared into space for a moment, looking absent. Then he opened a drawer of his desk and started rummaging through it with both hands, searching for something. At last he found it. A photograph. Setting it down on the desk, he spun it round with two fingers and pushed it towards Piras: three uniformed soldiers, framed from the waist up, leaning their heads together and smiling. Piras opened his eyes wide.
'But that's ... my father!'
'Yeah, that's him all right,' said Bordelli, mimicking a Sardinian accent.
'So you must be ... the Bordelli who saved his life!' Piras said excitedly. The inspector felt embarrassed, like a little kid. Piras picked up the photo and continued to look at it, incredulous. A faint smile played on his lips, parting them.
'When I tell my father about this ...' he said.
'Send him the photo,' said Bordelli.
'Thank you, Inspector. My father will like that very much.' Piras looked at the snapshot a moment longer, then put it in his pocket. Bordelli sighed.
'So, tell me, how is Gavino?'
'He's fine, Inspector, still strong as an ox.'
'I'm sure he's never told you, because he was always very modest, but he was one of the best. I always brought him along on my patrols. He was quiet and alert, like a cat, and we used to communicate with our eyes. He would sniff out the Germans as if he could actually smell them; he could see the Nazi convoys when the rest of us hadn't heard the slightest sound.'
The inspector also thought about the arm that Gavino had left behind in the nettles thanks to a mine, right at the end of the war. But he didn't know how to bring it up. He would have liked to know whether his old friend had any problems, whether there was any way he could help, but he didn't want to risk offending his son.
'And what is he up to these days?' he asked.
'He works as a caretaker at a school, but whenever he gets the chance, he runs off to his little patch of land so he can play peasant and talk to his animals.'
'What kind of animals has he got?'
'Pigs, sheep, chickens, rabbits, doves ... There's even a turtle, and he talks to all of them as if they were people.'
Bordelli felt relieved.
'He liked animals back then, too. Has he ever told you he spent the last two years of the war with a mouse in his pocket? He even gave it a name—'
'He called it Gioacchino. He brought it home with him. It died when I was three.'
They talked about the past, the war and Gavino for a good half-hour.
Piras was eighteen years old. Apparently Gavino had wasted no time upon his return, promptly marrying his former girlfriend and getting straight down to the matter at hand. He certainly didn't need both arms to make babies, and after the first son, they had four more. As the conversation wound down, Bordelli sighed wistfully. He felt very old.
'Has your father got a telephone?' he asked.
'No, Inspector, I get in touch with him through the village priest.'
'Next time you talk to him, give him a hug for me, and tell him. I would love to see him again.'
For Bordelli, seeing Gavino Piras again would be like returning to the front lines. He felt at once very sad and very pleased. A gust of hot air filtered through the half-closed shutters, enveloping his face, and he felt his forehead bead with sweat.
'Now, to us, Piras.' He tapped the report with his forefinger. 'Did you write this?'
'Why, is there something wrong with it?'
The inspector scratched the back of his neck.
'No, on the contrary. It's very well done. I bet when you were a little kid you wanted to become a policeman,' said Bordelli, smiling. Piras remained serious.
'I've always liked discovering the hidden side of things, especially when everything looks completely normal on the surface.'
'I'm the same way, Piras. We're both cursed.' Piras gave a hint of a smile, with only his eyes. The rest of his face remained stony. It was probably a rare thing to see him laugh in earnest.
They remained silent for a few seconds, listening to a distant siren until its wail became confused with the buzzing of a restless fly. The heat was intense, the kind that slows the thought processes. Bordelli felt a bead of sweat drip down his side and bestirred himself.
'What do you want to do in the police force?' he asked the boy.
'Murder,' Piras said firmly.
'I guessed as much.'
'I should leave now, sir. I have to go somewhere in the car.'
'Have a good day.'
Piras thanked him and left the room with a firm step, not a drop of sweat on him. Bordelli's shirt, on the other hand, was wet and sticking to his back, and he envied the Sardinian with all his heart. He remembered the coffee and brought the cup to his lips. It was disgustingly lukewarm, but he drank it anyway.
Rodrigo lived in Viale Gramsci, in the nineteenth-century quarter that had sprouted up along the line of the Renaissance-era walls, after these were demolished. Broad avenues, no commerce. Inspector Bordelli rang the buzzer outside the main entrance and waited. His cousin worked at home in the afternoon and was usually loath to leave his desk. He taught chemistry at the liceo and saw the world through formulas. He was constantly assigning written exercises, then spent his afternoons correcting them. That was why he taught: so he could correct. In August, when everybody else was on holiday, Rodrigo was still correcting avalanches of homework that he would thrust into the faces of his pupils on the first day of class in October.
In childhood, he and Rodrigo had silently detested each other. Bordelli was two years older and used to frighten Rodrigo with the faces he made. In adolescence they ended up spending a few summers on the same beach. Their parents would send them out to sea together to fish, but all Bordelli could think about when they were on the water together was drowning his cousin. By age twenty, as fate would have it, they lost sight of each other, but on the first Christmas after the war, they met up again. And they shook hands and decided once and for all that they were different from one another. Neither had married, but for different reasons: the inspector because he was waiting for the right girl, and Rodrigo because he was afraid to spend too much, in every sense. Ever since that Christmas, they would seek each other out some three or four times a year, never for any particular reason, but as if, every so often, they both needed to see, with their own eyes, the abyss of difference between them, either as confirmation or for love of the challenge. And they would part, each pleased not to be like the other. For Bordelli it was always a relief to realise that the whole world wasn't like Rodrigo, and Rodrigo always openly declared that Bordelli was not at all right in the head. But they didn't hate each other; they couldn't because they were too far apart. Actually, there was a sort of bond between them, though neither of them would ever have admitted it.
Bordelli rang the bell again, and at last Rodrigo came to a window on the fourth floor. Seeing his policeman cousin below, he stopped and looked at him, remaining provocatively immobile. The inspector gestured to him to open the door, but the other just stood there, staring at him. Then he saw Rodrigo disappear, and a moment later he heard the click of the electric lock on the door. Climbing the stone stairs, he detected the smells of old furniture and carpets, typical of that building. On the fourth floor he found the door open, but no one there to welcome him. He entered and noticed with pleasure that it was cool in the apartment. Rodrigo was sitting in the living room with pen in hand, obviously a red pen. He did not greet him or even look up from his papers. Bordelli sat down on the edge of the desk.
'Well? So how's Rodrigo?'
'You're sitting on the homework assignments I need to correct.'
'Oh, sorry. Where should I put them?'
'If I put them there, it means that's where they're supposed to be.' He spoke fast, correcting all the while, eyes fixed on the page. Bordelli stood up and put everything back in place.
'I'm going to make tea. Will you have some?' he asked politely.
'The housekeeper cleaned the kitchen a couple of hours ago,' said Rodrigo, still without looking up.
'So what? Does that mean you'll never cook again?'
'All right, all right, go and make your tea.' It seemed like a major concession.
'Lemon or milk?' asked Bordelli.
'No sugar. There's honey in the cupboard on the right.'
'How many spoonfuls?'
'Two. Teaspoons, that is.'
'I got that.'
'I'd like a little silence.'
'I'll be silent as the grave.'
It was strange to talk to someone who was correcting papers without ever looking you in the eye. Bordelli thought about annoying him further by asking him what kind of cup he wanted, whether he wanted a napkin and what kind, paper or cloth, and other things of that sort, but thought better of it. He went into the kitchen to make the tea, trying to create as little mess as possible. He returned with cups in hand and found his cousin in the same position. Rodrigo seemed to have turned to stone. He was staring at a sheet of paper. He was only happy when he could make sweeping strokes of red ink. Bordelli set Rodrigo's tea down in a random spot on the desk, at the very moment his cousin was finishing a broad red flourish of the pen.
Excerpted from Death in August by MARCO VICHI. Copyright © 2011 Marco Vichi. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Marco Vichi’s novel Death in Florence won the Scerbanenco, Rieti, and Camaiore prizes. His novels Death in August and Death and the Olive Grove are available from Pegasus Crime.
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