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The two plainclothes cops huddled in the doorway of a closed farmacia in Via del Corso, shivering, teeth chattering, watching Mauro Sandri, the fat little photographer from Milan, fumble with the two big Nikon SLRs dangling round his neck. It was five days before Christmas and for once Rome was enjoying snow, real snow, deep and crisp and even, the kind you normally only saw on the TV when some surprise blizzard engulfed those poor miserable bastards living in the north.
It fell from the black sky as a perfect, silky cloud. Thick flakes curled around the gaudy coloured lights of the street decorations in a soft, white embrace. The pavements were already blanketed in a crunchy, shoe-deep covering in spite of the milling crowds who had pounded the Corso’s black stones a few hours earlier, searching for last-minute Christmas presents in the stores.
Nic Costa and Gianni Peroni had read the met briefing before they went on duty that evening. They’d looked at the words “severe weather warning” and tried to remember what that meant. Floods maybe. Gales that brought down some of the ancient tiles which sat so unsteadily on the rooftops of the centro storico, the warren of streets and alleys in the city’s Renaissance quarter where the two men spent most of their working lives. But this was different. The met men said it would snow and snow and snow. Snow in a way it hadn’t for almost twenty years, since the last big freeze in 1985. Only for longer this time, a week or more. And the temperatures would hit new lows too. Maybe it was global warming. Maybe it was just a trick throw of the meteorological dice. Whatever the reason, the world was about to become seriously out of sync for a little while and that knowledge, shared among the two and a half million or more individuals who lived within the boundaries of the Comune di Roma, was both scary and tantalizing. The city was braced for its first white Christmas in living memory and already the consequences of this were beginning to seep into the Roman consciousness. People were preparing to bunk off work for any number of sound and incontrovertible reasons. They’d picked up the nasty virus that was creeping through the city. They couldn’t take the buses in from the suburbs because, even if they made it through the dangerous, icy streets, who knew if they’d get back in the evening? Life was, for once, just too perilous to do anything but stay at home, or maybe wander down to the local bar and talk about nothing except the weather.
And they were all, librarian and shop assistant, waiter and tour guide, priest and shivering cop, thinking secretly: This is wonderful. Because for once Christmas would be a holiday. For once the city would step off the constantly moving escalator of modern life, remember to take a deep breath, close its eyes and sleep a little, all under that gorgeous ermine coverlet that kept falling in a constant white cloud, turning the black stones of the empty streets the colour of icing sugar.
Peroni glanced at his partner, an expression Costa now recognized, one that said: Watch this. Then the big cop walked over and threw an arm around Sandri, squeezing him hard.
“Hey, Mauro,” Peroni growled, and crushed the photographer one more time before letting go. “Your fingers are frozen stiff. It’s pitch dark here with nothing to look at but snow. Why don’t you quit taking photos for a while? You must’ve done a couple of hundred today already. Relax. We could go some place warm. Come on. Even you clever guys could handle a caffè corretto on a night like this.”
The photographer’s round, bulbous eyes blinked back at the two policemen suspiciously. He flexed his shoulders, maybe to shrug off the cold, maybe to get back some feeling after experiencing Peroni’s grip.
“This would be a duty break, right? I can still shoot if I want to?”
Nic Costa listened to Sandri’s squeaky northern tones, sighed and put a restraining hand on his partner’s arm, worried that Peroni’s temper just might take a turn in the wrong direction. The photographer had been doing the rounds of the Questura all month. He was a nice enough guy, an arty type who’d been given some kind of government grant to create a documentary record of the station’s work. He’d photographed all manner of people: traffic cops and forensic, the lunatics from the morgue, the paper-monkeys in clerical. Costa had seen some of his work already: a set of moody monochrome prints of the warders working the cells. The photos weren’t half bad. And he had noted the photographer’s steady progress around the station, understanding the greedy, interested gaze the man gave him and Peroni every time they crossed his path. Mauro Sandri was a photographer. He thought in visual terms, and not much else in all probability. He must have looked at Nic Costa—small, slight, young, like an athlete who’d somehow quit the track—set him, in his mind, against the big, bulking frame of his partner—more than twenty years older and with an ugly, violently disfigured face no one ever forgot—and felt his shutter finger start to itch.
Gianni Peroni surely knew that too. Nic’s partner was used to sideways glances, for his looks and his history. He’d been inspector in vice for years until, almost a year before, he’d been busted down to the ranks for one simple slip-up, when he’d tasted the goods he was supposed to be investigating. All for a private, internalized reason he’d later shared with one person only, the younger partner who pounded the street alongside him. That didn’t stop an intelligent man, one who could read an expression even on Peroni’s battered features, seeing the two cops together and understanding there was a story there. It was inevitable that Sandri would pick them as his subject one day. Inevitable, too, that Gianni Peroni would see it as a challenge to ride the photographer a touch hard along the way.
“You can still shoot, Mauro,” Costa said and caught a glimpse of a resentful twinkle in Peroni’s bright, beady eye.
He took his partner’s arm again and whispered, “They’re just pictures, Gianni. You know the great thing about pictures?”
“No, tell me, Professor,” Peroni murmured, watching Sandri struggle to work another 35 mm cassette into his Nikon.
“They only show what’s on the surface. The rest you make up. You write your own story. You imagine your own beginning and your own ending. Pictures are fiction pretending to be truth.”
Peroni nodded. He wasn’t his normal self, Costa thought. There were dark, complex thoughts rumbling around deep inside a head that temperamentally liked to avoid such places.
“Maybe. But does this particular fiction have a caffè corretto inside it?”
Costa coughed into a gloved hand and stamped his feet, thinking about the taste of a big slug of grappa hidden inside a double espresso and how little activity there could be on a night such as this, when even the most crooked Roman hoods would surely be thinking of nothing but a warm bed.
“I believe it does,” he answered, and scanned the deserted street, where just a single bus was struggling down the centre line at a snail’s pace, trying to keep from skidding into the gutter.
Costa stepped out from the shelter of the doorway, pulling the collar of his thick black coat up, shielding his eyes from the blizzard with a frozen hand, then darted into an alley, towards the distant yellow light trickling from the tiny doorway of what he guessed just might be the last bar open in Rome.
They proved to be the only three customers in the tiny cafe down the alley beyond the Galleria Doria Pamphili, among the dark tangle of ancient streets that ran west towards the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Costa stood with Gianni Peroni at one end of the counter, trying to calm down the big man before something untoward happened. Mauro Sandri was crouched on a stool a good distance away, concentrating hard on polishing the lenses on his damn cameras, not even touching the booze-rich caffè Peroni had bought him before war broke out.
The owner, a tall, skeletal man with a white nylon jacket, scrappy brown moustache and greased grey hair, looked at the three of them in turn and declared quite firmly, “Were this up to me, I’d slap the guy around a little, Officer. I mean, you got to have limitations. There’s public places and there’s private places. If a man can’t get a little peace and quiet when he wanders into the pisser and gets his cazzo out, what’s this world coming to? That’s what I want to know. That, and when you people are getting the hell out of here. If you weren’t police I’d be closed already. A man don’t pay the mortgage selling three coffees in an hour, and I don’t see anyone else showing up for this party either.”
He was right. Costa had seen only a few figures scurrying through the snow when they trudged to the bar. Now it was solid white beyond the door. Anyone with sense was, surely, snug at home, swearing not to set foot outside until the blizzard ended and some sunlight turned up to disclose what Rome looked like after an extraordinary night like this.
Gianni Peroni had downed his coffee and added an extra grappa on top, which was unlike the man. He sat hunched on an ancient, rickety stool, designed to be as uncomfortable as possible so no one lingered, staring mutely at the bottles behind the bar. It wasn’t Sandri’s stupid trick with the camera that had caused this, Costa knew. Trying to snap a picture of Peroni taking a piss—vérité was what Mauro had called it—was merely the final straw that had pushed the big man over the edge.
They’d discussed this already earlier that evening, when Costa had quietly asked the big man if everything was OK. It all came out in a rush. What was really bugging Peroni was the fact he wouldn’t see his kids this Christmas, for the first time ever.
“I’ll get Mauro to apologize,” Costa told his partner now. “He didn’t mean anything, Gianni. You had the measure of the guy straightaway. He just does this, all the time. Taking pictures.”
Besides, Costa thought, any photo could have been quite something too. He could easily imagine a grainy black-and-white shot of Peroni’s hulking form, shot from the back, shrinking into the corner of the bar’s grubby urinal, looking like an outtake from some fifties shoot in Paris by Cartier-Bresson. Sandri had an eye for a picture. Costa half blamed himself. When Peroni had dashed for the toilet door and Sandri’s eyes had lit up, he should have seen what was coming.
“I’ve bought all the presents, Nic,” Peroni moaned, those piggy eyes twinkling back at him, the scarred face full of guilt and pain. “How the hell do I get them to Siena now with this shitty weather everywhere? What are they going to think of me, on top of everything else?”
“Phone them. They know what it’s like here. They’ll understand.”
“They will?” Peroni snapped. “What the fuck do you know about kids, huh?”
Costa took his hand off Peroni’s huge, hunched shoulder, shrugged and said nothing. Peroni had two children: a girl of thirteen, a boy of eleven. He never seemed to be able to think of them as anything but helpless infants. It was one of the traits Costa admired in his partner. To the world he looked like a bruised, scarred thug, the last man anyone would want to meet on a dark night. And it was all an act. Underneath, Peroni was just a straightforward, honest, old-fashioned family man, one who’d stepped out of line once and paid the heaviest price.
“Oh, crap.” Peroni sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I don’t want to lash out at you. I don’t even want to lash out at Mauro over there.”
“That’s good to know,” Costa replied, then added, “if there’s any-thing I can do . . .”
“Such as what?” Peroni asked.
“It’s an expression, Gianni. It’s a way a friend has of saying, ‘No, I haven’t the first idea how I can help, and the truth is I probably can’t do a thing. But if I could, I would.’ Understand?”
A low, croaking snort of semi-amusement escaped Peroni’s throat. “OK, OK. I am contrite. I repent my sins.” His scarred face screwed up with distaste aimed, it seemed to Costa, somewhere deep inside himself. “Some more than others.”
Then he shot a vicious look at Sandri, huddled over the Nikons. “I want that film, though. I’m not having my pecker pasted all over the notice board for everyone to see. They told the guy he could follow us around and take pictures. They didn’t say he could walk straight after us into the pisser.”
“Mauro swears there’s really nothing there. People wouldn’t even see it was you. And maybe it’s a good picture, Gianni. Think of it.”
The battered face wrinkled sceptically. “It’s a picture of a man taking a piss. Not the Mona Lisa.”
Costa had tried to talk art to Peroni before. It hadn’t worked. Peroni was irretrievably romantic at heart, still stuck on the idea of beauty. Truth came somewhere far behind. And it occurred to Costa too that maybe there was more to the big man’s misery than the genuine distress he felt at being separated from his kids. There was also the matter of the relationship Peroni had struck up with Teresa Lupo, the pathologist working at the police morgue. It was meant to be a secret, but secrets never really stayed hidden for long inside the Questura. Peroni was dating the likeable, wayward Teresa and it was common knowledge. When Costa found out, a couple of weeks before, he had thought long and hard about it and had come to the conclusion that the two might, just, make a good couple. If Peroni could swallow his guilt. If Teresa could keep her life straight for long enough to make things work once the initial flush of mad enthusiasm that came with any affair subsided into the routine of everyday existence.