The Marshal and the Murderer
By Magdalen Nabb
Copyright © 1999 Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich.
All rights reserved.
'Well, I hope I haven't taken up too much of your time ...' Biondini, the curator of the Palatine Gallery, blinked nervously behind his big glasses, his gaze wandering over the heads of the people ascending the great stone staircase of the Pitti Palace as though any one of them might be a picture thief.
'No, no ...' Marshal Guarnaccia assured him placidly. 'At this time of year ...'
'Quite frankly, it's not security that's giving me a headache with this exhibition, it's whether we'll get it hung in time for the opening. The catalogue won't be ready, that's a certainty by now, and as for staffing the place over Christmas ... well, I'll have to worry about that when I get to it excuse me again, you don't want to hear about my problems ...'
They had reached the bottom of the staircase where the big iron lamps were still lit around the courtyard though they did little to dispel the gloom of a foggy November morning.
'I'll leave you here, Marshal.'
The two shook hands.
'Oh, I almost forgot ...' Biondini slid a thin hand into his inside pocket and pulled out two printed invitations. 'You will come to the opening? And do bring your wife. Now I must run, I have someone waiting to see me about that catalogue. Thank you again ...'
He hurried back up the stairs.
Marshal Guarnaccia came out under the big stone archway and stood for a moment letting his gaze roll over the cars parked on the sloping forecourt. He was probably the only man in Florence who appreciated the dirty November weather since it allowed him to go without the sunglasses he almost always wore to protect his large, rather bulging eyes which were allergic to sunlight.
Everything looked quiet and orderly in the car park. Below it the traffic was moving steadily and only the occasional impatient hoot of a car horn punctuated the steady buzz of the city going about its winter business.
Satisfied, the Marshal turned to the right and went into the Carabinieri Station that was housed in one wing of the palace.
The narrow stairs leading up to the Station always served to remind him that he was overweight. He took them slowly, let himself in with a key and crossed the empty waiting-room to his office. He could hear a typewriter going in the duty room and an expression of weariness settled on his face at the thought that he, too, had a lot of paperwork to get through. It was Tuesday, and though he always intended to get through the pile of reports on stolen cars and minor break-ins that came in on Monday morning as an aftermath of the weekend, he somehow always found something better to do and they got left until Tuesday.
He switched on the desk lamp and sat down heavily, staring at the map of Florence on the wall in front of him. Then he reached for the first sheet on the pile.
Brigadier Lorenzini put his head round the door. 'Oh ... you're busy. It'll keep till later if ...'
'No, no! Come in, son, come in. Something happened?'
'Nothing much, but there was a young woman in here asking for you, it would be about half an hour ago. I suppose you were still with Dr Biondini.'
'What did she want?'
'That's just it, she wouldn't say. She asked for the Marshal and when I said you were out she said she'd come back later. The thing is, I'd swear she doesn't know you anyway she's foreign. I think your not being here was just an excuse to change her mind, you know how some people are, they decide to make a complaint and then when they get in here ...'
'I know. Foreign, was she? Where from?'
'Swiss, she said, but she didn't have her passport with her. In fact, it was when I asked her for it that she got nervous and left. Well, it's probably nothing, only she left me with the impression ...'
'I don't know, she seemed genuinely upset about something and it kind of stuck in my mind. If there's anything in it I suppose she'll be back.'
'I suppose so. How are things at home?'
'Fine. Couldn't be better.'
They were expecting their first baby shortly and it might have been the first child to be born into this world. Lorenzini, always precipitate, had had his little Fiat overhauled three times to be ready for flight towards the hospital, the first time when his wife was only in her fifth month.
'If you wait until the lads have eaten you can go home to lunch, if you like.'
'Thanks, Marshal! I didn't like to before when she was always queasy and couldn't stand the smell of cooking but now it's passed off ... and I like to check up, well, you never know ...' He looked earnestly at his superior as if afraid of being laughed at, but the Marshal only looked solemnly back at him, his big, eyes expressionless, and said, 'Of course. But she'll be all right, she's a fine healthy young woman.'
The truth was that he rather envied Lorenzini. When his own two boys had been born he had been here in Florence and his wife at home down in Syracuse and he'd had to content himself with a telephone call once a week.
He sighed as the door closed behind young Lorenzini. The pile of papers still lay there on the desk and it wasn't going to disappear of its own accord.
The midday bells were ringing and a good smell of meat sauce was filtering down from the lads' quarters when at last the Marshal pushed the final report away from him, muttering, 'No decent lock on the door and money lying about all over the house and then they come round whining at me as if it were my fault ...'
The smell of that sauce woke his appetite with a sharp pang. And then he remembered that his wife had been tossing breadcrumbs in a frying-pan when he left her that morning which meant his favourite pasta all a mollica for lunch. The thought, plus that of the completed paperwork, cheered him, though it would be another hour and a half before the boys came hurtling across the piazza from school. He got up, thinking to go and look in on the boy who would be alone in the duty room while his mate was upstairs cooking, but then he heard voices outside the door and when he opened it he found Lorenzini there examining the passport of a girl who started and looked anxiously round as he came out. He went forward and held out his hand for the passport, looking hard at the girl whose features seemed somehow blurred behind the big glasses she wore. She must have been very short-sighted.
'You were here this morning?' he asked her, flipping through the passport,
'Yes, it's probably nothing, I don't know whether I should be bothering you ...'
'What time did you come?'
'What time? I don't ... I think it was about nine o'clock.'
'Nine-seventeen, Marshal,' said Lorenzini, who had since checked.
'Come this way please, Signorina ' he glanced again at the passport 'Signorina Stauffer.' The Marshal opened the door of his office and stood back to let her pass.
'Well, if you think ...'
'Take a seat.' The Marshal seated himself on his own side of the desk and looked at her for a moment without speaking. Her light brown hair was cut short and hung smooth and close to her face so that with the glasses which enlarged and distorted her pale eyes it was almost impossible to make out what she looked like. Not only that, but she wore a dark jacket whose collar was turned up against her cheeks and she held it there with one hand, letting go of it for a second every so often to adjust her glasses, then clutching at it again.
'Perhaps you'd like to take off your coat,' the Marshal suggested.
'No, no. Thank you. I'm all right like this.'
But it was very hot in the little office.
She wasn't only very short-sighted, he decided, she was desperately shy, and fairly agitated.
'What did you want to tell me?'
'It's not about me ... that is ... it's about a friend of mine ...'
'And what's happened to this friend of yours?' asked the Marshal, wondering if the friend existed. So many people came in with long rambling stories about some imaginary friend, finishing up with 'so what do you think I he should do?' 'Your boyfriend, is it?'
'No, no, a girl. We share a flat.' The hand slid up and pushed at the glasses again, covering the face.
'So? You share a flat.' Was she ever going to get to the point? Even so, the Marshal betrayed no impatience but continued to sit with his big hands planted on the desk, observing her. Seeing that it was hopeless, that she didn't go on, he said:
'Where is this flat, the address?'
'Via delle Caldaie .. that's just off Piazza Santo Spirito.'
'I know where it is. What number?'
'Number nine. The top floor.'
'Do you have a telephone?'
'Yes.' She gave him the number and he wrote it on the pad by the telephone just in case.
'How long have you been living there?'
'I ... we since the first of July when we arrived from Switzerland.'
'I didn't bring it with me, I didn't think ...'
'Do you have one?'
'Yes. So has Monica. A three-month one that will run out in December.'
Well, they were making progress. The friend now had a name and so was probably not imaginary.
'And the motive for which these permits were granted?'
'Study. We came to study here together at the Scuola Raffaello it was more of an extended holiday than anything but then we decided to stay even longer.'
'You like it here, do you?'
'Very much. We're still enrolled at the school although I don't pay fees any more, I help out with the secretarial work.'
'Is that the sort of work you did at home?'
'No ... no, we're both teachers and that's what we'll go back to, I expect, if ...' Again the hand went up to the glasses. The Marshal couldn't be sure but he thought there were tears in the girl's eyes.
'Listen, Signorina ... I can see you're upset but if you don't tell me what it's about I can't help you, can I?'
'You probably can't anyway.'
The Marshal repressed a sigh. However, this time the girl went on without any prompting.
'I told myself I'd wait three days I haven't even told anyone at the school but then this morning I got panicky. She's sometimes gone off for a day but staying out overnight ... she didn't take anything with her, you see, that's why I was'
'So your friend's missing?'
'Of course, that's what I'm worried about.'
'Of course. When did you last see her?'
'Friday afternoon about four o'clock.'
'Then she's been missing since Friday?'
'No. At least, I suppose she could have been but I was away. We went to Rome, you see, a group of us from the school. We travelled back early Monday morning. I didn't expect to find Monica at the flat because she works in the mornings but then she didn't come back in the afternoon, or even last night to sleep do you really think she might have been missing since Friday night?'
'How could I possibly know that, Signorina now don't distress yourself. How old is your friend Monica?'
'Then she's old enough to take care of herself and to go off on a trip alone if she felt like it, isn't she?'
'She didn't take anything.' The girl's face was flushed dark with annoyance. She may have been timid but she was stubborn and stood her ground.
'If you're sure about that you should be able to tell me what she was wearing.'
'Blue jeans, a beige polo-neck sweater and a heavier, hand-knitted beige sweater over that, a long quilted jacket, red, and knee-length leather boots, her old ones. They were the clothes she went to work in. She wouldn't have gone away anywhere dressed in those clothes, they were stained.'
'Stained? What sort of job does she do?'
'She works for an artisan in the potteries.'
'Just a moment.' The Marshal drew a sheet of paper towards him. 'This girl has a permit to study here and now you tell me she works. You say she's a teacher and now it seems she's a potter. Shall we start again from the beginning.' Hadn't he heard it said that the Swiss were cold and efficient? Maybe that was the Germans ...
'Now then. Let's leave aside her disappearance for the moment and just have the facts. What's her surname?'
'Heer. Monica Heer. Wait ... I've brought her passport with me in case ...'
'Right. Height 5 feet 5. Hair blonde. She's very pretty.'
'Yes.' The remark didn't seem to go down too well.
'Age twenty-five, nationality Swiss. Profession?'
'Ah. And she's enrolled in this school, what was it again?'
'The Scuola Raffaello in Piazza della Repubblica.'
'Italian. For three months we went there full time and studied Italian plus craft work in the afternoons. We chose pottery although they do leather work and woodcarving as well. I wasn't any good at it myself but Monica's very talented. When we finished the full-time course we carried on just with Italian, and Monica ...'
'Got work with this artisan. Uninsured I suppose. Illegal.'
Was that perhaps why she'd had doubts about coming here? Her hand was clutching at the dark collar again, a square hand with short neat fingernails. And very nervous.
'It wasn't really a job ... she was learning from him. She'd really like to set up a studio when we go home instead of going back to teaching.'
Well, she wasn't the only foreigner working here illegally. It was only too easy, and a good deal for employers wanting to avoid taking on an apprentice and paying insurance. The Marshal decided to let it drop for the moment.
'Me?' The girl avoided his stare. 'I'm not talented like Monica.'
'But you did this pottery course, too.'
'Just because we wanted to be together. We'd only just arrived here ...'
'And now you're doing this secretarial work for the school I suppose that's not a real job either?'
'No, it isn't. I help out and get my Italian tuition free.'
'Hmph.' A sudden thought struck him. 'You only got here in July and started studying Italian. In that case you're remarkably fluent.'
Not that she didn't have a thick accent. Even so ...
'We already did speak Italian. A lot of the children we teach at home are the children of Italian immigrant workers. That's what gave us the idea of coming in the first place.'
'What language do you speak at home?'
'Both of you?'
'Yes. We're from the same Canton, Berne.'
The Marshal thought for a moment. Missing children were one thing, cut and dried, you knew where you were. But missing adults were another. It might want looking into and it might not. This girl was a bit strange with her funny way of hiding behind her glasses and her coat collar, but she seemed serious enough and worried enough too.
'This place where she worked, do you know where it is?'
'Of course. I was with her when she got the job I mean when she first went there. It's not really in the potteries but just before you get there on the left-hand side of the main road. There's nothing much there except this studio that's been set up in part of a peasant's cottage, and a small factory nearby that makes terracotta ware.'
'Who's the owner of this studio?''
'His name's Berti.'
'You don't know his Christian name?'
'No. I don't know exactly what the address is either.'
'Is there a telephone there?'
'No, otherwise I'd have called right away when she didn't come home on Monday afternoon. As it is ...'
'When I'd been here this morning I decided to go there.'
'You did? It's quite a way. Do you have a car?'
'No. I got the bus that Monica always got. I wasn't sure where to get off and I went past the place and had to walk back ...'
'Well, had she been to work?'
'He said not. That he hadn't seen her since she left after lunch on Friday.'
'She stayed there to lunch?'
'He paid for her to eat in the restaurant in the town nearby. It's true that it wasn't really a job I mean he paid for her lunch and her travelling expenses and sometimes if he sold one of her pieces he'd'
Excerpted from The Marshal and the Murderer 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.