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Death in Autumn
By Magdalen Nabb
Copyright © 1999 Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich.
All rights reserved.
Dawn still hadn't broken and the river water lapping the sides of the black rubber dinghy was of the same darkness as the sky except for a path of moving light coming from a lamp attached to the dinghy's side. A torch flashed a brief signal from the left and when the man in the dinghy answered it the truck parked on the bank was visible for an instant and then vanished in the blackness again. There was no point in trying to shout above the roaring of the weir below the next bridge. The man in the dinghy resumed his watch over the dark water. Things wouldn't get that much easier when dawn did come. The thick mist that hung over the river would take hours to disperse even if the mild autumn sun made an appearance, and the water level was still low so that every movement churned up mud. There were lights across the bridges and along the embankment, yellow and white points each surrounded by a little halo of mist. To the right, the centre of Florence was still shrouded in sleep and darkness. Nevertheless, there was an early morning feeling in the air, perhaps because of the few trucks that had trundled overhead towards the flower market, leaving their exhaust fumes to mingle with the muddy smells of the river.
The surface of the water broke suddenly at two points a few yards apart and two black shapes bobbed towards the path of light, where they became visible as two heads encased in black rubber. The divers had come up empty-handed for the fourth time. One of them lifted a hand to make a negative sign and then pointed down river to the next bridge. The two divers disappeared again and the man in the dinghy flashed another signal towards the bank and started up the outboard motor. It was true that they often came up there where small trees and rubbish, washed down to the city from the countryside, piled up under the arch on the left. The lights of the truck came on and began moving slowly forward, lighting up the gravelled track below the embankment wall, keeping pace with the dinghy. Even so, if the body had gone over the weir there would be nothing for it but to wait three days until it came up and was spotted by some passer-by in one of the small towns through which the Arno wound its way towards Pisa.
Unless, of course, the whole thing was a sick joke. It happened now and then. One of the divers, reluctant to go out in the dark, had said as much and suggested they wait till daylight but someone else who knew where the call had come from had soon put him right:
'I'd like to meet the person who could pull one over on Guarnaccia.'
'Never heard of him.'
'You have now. Marshal of Carabinieri over at Palazzo Pitti. Looks as dumb as an ox, southerner, but you'd have to be up early to catch him napping.'
'Well, that's just what somebody did, isn't it?'
And they had piled their equipment on to the truck in the dark, still grumbling.
In fact, it hadn't been someone up early who had claimed to have seen the body in the water but two young tourists who hadn't gone to bed, and the Marshal, his big, slightly protruding eyes red and puffy with sleep and his paunch more than usually evident beneath a half-buttoned jacket, had had a very hard time of it indeed.
In the first place they were foreigners, and after a long sweaty summer dealing with lost cameras, stolen handbags, missing children and almost-missing carsall those narrow streets look alike but the name began with an F or maybe it was G, a street with a stone arch across and a cobbler's shop, or was that where we parked it yesterdaythe Marshal and his men had had enough. Now here it was almost October and tourists still ringing the bell at Stazione Pitti in the middle of the night. 'All right,' the Marshal had said wearily, sitting down at his desk, 'bring them in.' And he picked up the passports that the two boys on duty had brought to him. Swedish.
They were brought in. A tall bearded young man and a girl. As they came through the door the Marshal could see that their rucksacks and plastic bags almost filled the little waiting-room beyond. He motioned them to sit down and the young man said a few incomprehensible words.
'Can't you speak any Italian?'
The young man looked at his girlfriend and she took out a phrasebook.
After almost half an hour the Marshal gave up and the carabiniere who had sat down at the typewriter got up again without having written a word.
'You see how it is, Marshal,' he said. 'We kept telling them to go to Borgo Ognissanti but they kept on ringing the bell and shouting things through the speaker. They don't understand a word. I didn't want to wake you, but what could we do?'
'I'll ring Borgo Ognissanti myself.' At Headquarters there was always somebody who could cope in most languages. He would get them to tell their story over the phone and if it turned out to be anything serious the Company Captain would have to be woken.
He dialled the number, muttering to himself the way he did all through the summer, 'I don't know what they come here for, they'd do better to stay at home ...'
It was serious. At least, it was if the story they told was true. When they had finished the Marshal got on the line again and had it repeated to him in Italian. Afterwards the Lieutenant on the other end said:
'Do you want me to call the Captain for you?'
The Marshal hesitated a moment and then said, 'Yes,' and rang off. To the two boys on duty he said, 'A body in the river. The Captain's coming over.' Then he added: 'One of you make some coffee. We're going to be all night sorting this lot out.'
It was to take longer than one night to sort out. If you counted the death of a man in New York which marked the real end of the story, it was to take almost two years.
'What time was this?'
'Between half past eleven and midnight, I think. We'd given up looking for accommodation by then. It was getting too late to be ringing doorbells and we can't really afford the sort of hotels that have night porters. We always carry sleeping-bags for emergencies so we weren't too worried.'
'You never book accommodation in advance?'
'That's not the way we travel. We'd heard of a hostel in Via Santa Monica but it turned out to be full. We tried one or two other places nearby and then started back towards the river, thinking that in the centre we'd find a bar or something that stayed open late. In fact we found one before we reached the river, just near here in Piazza Pitti. We stayed there until it closed.'
'I see. Just a moment ...' The Captain stopped to translate so that the Marshal's boy could take down the statement. The young carabiniere typed very rapidly with two fingers. The conversation had been in English, a little stilted on both sides but adequate. Each time the typing stopped they carried on. The Captain was unshaven and not too happy at having been got out of bed at three in the morning, but although he didn't approve of foreigners rambling around the country with rucksacks and too little money, he was impressed by the seriousness and obvious intelligence of the two Swedes and more or less inclined to believe their story after some initial doubts as to whether they weren't just looking for a warm place to pass the rest of the night.
'You decided to sleep out?'
'At that point it was necessary.'
'Why the Ponte Vecchio?'
'It's a popular place to sleep for young people.'
That was true, and as a rule they slept late so that people had to pick their way through the huddled grimy sleeping-bags to get across the bridge on their way to work in the morning.
'What time did you see the body?'
'Almost directly we got there. We were leaning over the parapet, in the middle where there are no shops.'
'Why were you leaning over the parapet?'
The young man seemed surprised. 'Looking at the view, the lights on the water. It's very beautiful.'
'Was there anyone else on the bridge?'
'You still haven't told me what time it was.'
'I didn't look at my watch, I didn't think of it, I'm sorry. But once we were sure, we came here immediately and I should think it can only be a five minute walk, so ...'
The Captain looked beyond him at the Marshal, who was standing watching the proceedings with an expressionless face.
'Three-twenty-seven when they got here, sir.'
'Thank you. Go on, please.'
'Well, we weren't sure at first what it was. We could just make out a dark shape, under the bridge up against one of the arches. There were some boulders there and it was slapping against them gently. Then it must have worked loose. Anyway it sort of rolled over and began drifting out from under the arch so that the lights from the bridge made it more visible. It was dragging along slowly as if it were scraping the river bed, so I suppose the water was low there. We saw the face and hair. Only for a few seconds because then it floated away from the light, rolled over again and sank. At least, we think it sank. We couldn't see it any more but of course it may just have been the darkness.'
Again they stopped so that the Captain could translate and the typewriter began clacking again. The Marshal's other boy brought in more coffee. Having to go through everything twice was making it a long business.
'What made you come here?'
'What ... well, to report what we'd seen, I mean ...'
'But why here, to this station? You could have phoned the police emergency number from the nearest telephone-box.'
'I see what you mean, but no, we couldn't. We had no telephone tokens, we only arrived here today, and you see, we'd seen this place earlier when we were here in the Piazza. We were having a look at the Pitti Palace and we saw your sign and the bell, so naturally we thought of coming back.'
'I see. Can you give an account of your movements for the whole of the day?'
'You surely don't think that we had anything to do with this?'
'I didn't say so. Nevertheless, I need an account of your movements. Would you mind going back into the waiting-room for a moment? You can organize your thoughts on that while I make a telephone call.'
When they had been taken out the Captain looked at the Marshal and said: 'What do you think?' He had learned over the years that it was always worth asking Guarnaccia what he thought even if you didn't get an answer for three days. This time he didn't have to wait so long.
'I think they're telling the truth.'
'In that case we'd better give the order for the river to be dragged.'
'Would you like me to call, sir?'
'If you would. I'll go on dictating the statement.'
And the Marshal had telephoned.
They found the body just as dawn was breaking. There were few people about but two or three had collected on the bridge to watch as the divers went down with a rope and hooks. A great swirl of mud came to the surface first, then the two divers, then a limp and slimy form that seemed more like a thick-pelted animal than a human being. But
Excerpted from Death in Autumn by Magdalen Nabb. Copyright © 1999 by Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.