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Some Bitter Taste
By Magdalen Nabb
SOHO Copyright © 2002 Magdalen Nabb and Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich
All right reserved.
Chapter One The young man, Gjergj, just disappeared. From one day to the next his few possessions vanished from the little room in the villa and that was it. The marshal often had occasion to wonder what became of him. But the Albanian problem ... you could only do your best. At least Dori was off the streets. In a sense, you could say that was more important because there was a child involved. It would be ... what? About three months old by now. Coming back to his carabinieri station in the Pitti Palace after a fine spring afternoon in the country, the marshal hoped to goodness this coming summer wouldn't be as hot as the last. He still remembered the day they returned from their holidays back home in Syracuse to be hit by the suffocating heat and the crush of tourists. Florence in July ...
The Pitti Palace dominates the neighbourhood of Oltrarno, the left bank of the river Arno; it stands just a stone's throw from Ponte Vecchio and its huge bulk, spread out horizontally, is like a stone barrier that, from the square, closes off the view of the Boboli hill behind it ... It is difficult to imagine, behind the severe, rusticated facade, rhythmically spanned by arcades, the hidden garden rising up the hillside which the visitor discovers only after crossing the threshold of the palace, asthe large courtyard opens up before him ...
Marshal Guarnaccia flipped the pages of the guidebook. Pretty pictures. Cost a pretty penny, too. He was willing to bet that the woman who had left it behind when she came in to report her lost or stolen wallet had left that on the counter when she bought the guide. Once you started forgetting things in this heat ...
He leaned back in his leather chair with a sigh. You come back from holiday, fresh and hopeful, and you think everything will be different. Then you walk back into your office and everything's the same.
A young carabiniere knocked and peered in at Marshal Guarnaccia's door. He looked up. `Has that woman come back for this book?'
`No, she hasn't. Can I send in the next one?'
`How many more of them are out there?'
`Just four in the waiting room but there's that prostitute-I told her to come in this morning.' `Oh.'
`Did I do wrong? She won't talk to anybody but you, and Lorenzini said-'
`You did quite right. And if she turns up I want to see her straight away.'
`Yes, Marshal. So shall I ...?'
`Just give me two minutes, son, will you?'
What good would two minutes do? Well, he could take his jacket off, for a start. Only nine-thirty and it was sweltering. It was true that down home in Syracuse the temperature often reached one hundred and two, one hundred and four, even one hundred and five degrees, but there was always a breeze from the sea. Florence in July ... He flipped through the rest of the brightly coloured guidebook.
The slope leading up to the fountain of Neptune from which one has one of the most beautiful panoramas of the city.
It was true and what's more, here he was inside the Pitti Palace and that view was right outside his window. Only he couldn't open the window or even the shutters because it was too hot. There were no words to describe Florence in July. If only the Arno valley weren't so stagnant. Breathing the same soup of evaporating river, car fumes, sweat, and drains day after day made you long to stay indoors where it was cool and clean. Every evening on the news they told you that children, invalids, asthmatics, and the elderly should avoid going out during the hottest hours of the day. Marshals of carabinieri were not a protected species, it seemed.
`Poof!' He hung his uniform jacket behind the door beside his hat and holster. In his shirtsleeves he felt a little better and, with any luck, he would have no cause to go out today at all. It crossed his mind, as he slid his bulk back between desk and chair, that it might be easier to bear the suffocating heat of Florence if he weighed less. Thinking about it, part of that unreasoning postholiday buoyancy was a vision, after the overeating excused by the visit home, of a renewed and lighter self, to be achieved by wishful thinking alone.
`No, no ... That's not it, at all.' He knew now what that after-the-holidays feeling came from. From school days. Cooling weather, new shoes, new teacher, new start. Satisfied that he had pinned it down, and reminding himself that each new school year had resulted in nothing but dismay and confusion for himself and irritation for his teachers, he addressed himself to the present. He was overweight, overheated, and overworked, and there were two more months of heat to get through. But at least he was behind the big desk now and no one these days accused him of not paying attention. Except his wife.
`It's her, Marshal. That prostitute ...'
`Bring her straight in and tell the rest they might as well go home and come back this afternoon. Anybody who insists on waiting can wait but this is going to take a long time.' It had already taken the marshal two months of patiently whittling away at the Albanian girl's natural diffidence in the face of uniformed authority to reach this crucial moment and he didn't intend to lose her now, for her sake more than his own. Arrest and convict one pimp and a dozen others are ready to take his place, but for the girl the story could have a happy ending.
`Sit down, Dori.' She was a fabulously good-looking girl, tall with lovely long legs; short, very blond hair; blue eyes; wide, painted lips. The face of a porcelain doll. She could surely have been a successful model if she'd had the luck to be born somewhere other than Albania. `How are you feeling?'
`I'm all right.'
`No more nausea?'
`Not much. In any case, I'm working. Might as well keep earning as long as I can.'
`In another month it'll be showing.'
`So what? Some men go for that. It's happened to plenty of the other girls. You know what men are like. There's plenty of them want you when you're menstruating. Being pregnant's not that big a problem.'
`Who's running things now Ilir's inside?'
`His cousin, Lek.'
`I thought as much.'
`Makes no difference to me, does it? He's okay ...'
`Nothing ... that friend of mine-you know, the letter and money you found-well, he made me give him her address.'
`I see. It doesn't surprise me. I suppose he thinks she's as good-looking as you, and Ilir's inside.'
`You're wrong. He's not trying to pull one over on Ilir. He's his cousin. That's why Ilir trusted his girls to Lek instead of the rest of his gang. He's looking after Ilir's interests, that's all. He's not interested in running girls, anyway. He's got a building firm. He's making plenty.'
The marshal knew all about the man and his building firm but he didn't say so. He only said, `Does she know what she's getting into?'
`She knows what she's getting away from. D'you know what they say about women in that arsehole end of the earth where she comes from? "Women should do more work than donkeys because donkeys live on hay and women eat bread."'
`All right, Dori. Just remember that not all these girls have your luck. So, what about this man Mario? You can't keep him waiting indefinitely. I thought you were here because you'd made your mind up.'
She opened her bag and fished out cigarettes and an orange plastic lighter, then hesitated. He pushed a big glass ashtray towards her. `So what's it to be? Have you made your mind up?'
`D'you mean about Mario or that other business?'
`It's all one, Dori. Marriage or prison, that's what it comes down to. If you shop Ilir you'll have to disappear from the streets. If you don't shop him, you go down. We may need you for proof against him but we've already got proof against you. Do you want your baby to be born in prison? There's another person to think about besides yourself.'
He could see that this child had no reality for her yet but once it was born she'd have to come to her senses, and though a girl as good-looking as she was might pick up more than one client willing to marry her, a man who'd take on a child too might not be so easy to come by.
Ilir Pictri, her protector, had been caught collecting money from her, which he did at intervals during her night's work, afraid of her stashing a bit away for herself or being robbed. She could make two million lire in a night with no trouble at all. He had her go into a phone box at the entrance to the Cascine Park, pretend to make a call, and slip the money under the phone book. Ilir would go in after her, pretend to make a call in his turn, and pick up the money. It had been easy enough for a couple of carabinieri in plain clothes to work this manoeuvre out. They arrested him during a `phone call'. Ilir was inside now, awaiting trial, and they needed Dori's testimony to convict him of pimping. When they'd searched the flat after Pictri's arrest, they'd found a letter written by Dori to a friend of hers back in Albania. A translation revealed that she was encouraging the girl to join her, telling her what she could earn and enclosing money for the journey with details and contacts for a clandestine passage. This letter made her guilty of pimping along with Ilir and she'd been offered a deal. Testify against him and charges would be dropped against her. Now a regular client of Dori's, Mario B., had offered to marry her. The marshal had called him in and had a quiet talk with him and it seemed that he was willing to go through with the marriage even though the girl was pregnant. He had even said, `You never know, it could be mine. Besides, she told me herself, you know. It's not as though she tried to hide it from me like some girls would have done. She's a good girl who's had a bad time.'
And, the marshal thought, she's tall, blond, and sexy, and you, though honest and respectable, are an office worker whose face is as dreary as your job. So he didn't try to dissuade Mario. He just listened to him. He was going to need luck to make such a marriage work, but then who didn't?
And now he listened to Dori. She was a lot more realistic than her prospective husband, and her fears were well grounded. If she'd ever had any hopes or illusions, they'd been crushed out of her long before Ilir's money paid the exorbitant fee that brought her across to Puglia, wet and starved in a rubber dinghy.
`Besides, how long will he get? Whether I'm married or not, he could still come after me when he gets out.'
`You can afford to pay him off.' He wasn't being strictly honest and they both knew it. The average price of a girl was around twenty-five million lire. A girl with Dori's looks wasn't easy to come by. She couldn't afford to pay him off.
`So get married. You'll be living in Prato. A different city, a different world ...'
She lit another cigarette, thinking about it. The same image was in both their heads. Neither of them wanted to put it into words. Black nights on the motorway. Girls who refused to play ball, girls who thought they could set up on their own account, beaten, tortured, abandoned. The most recent had got off lightly with fractures to shoulder, arm, and knee. She was eight months pregnant. The baby had survived.
And even so, after their experiences in Albania, it was authority that they feared, uniforms that they hated. So it needed patience.
If only that Mario had a bit more oomph, he'd threaten to change his mind instead of hanging around bleating like a sheep. That might shock her, make her realise ...
The marshal himself had a card up his sleeve but he didn't feel justified in showing it. One that would link her, probably unjustly, to an organized crime investigation. Better wait and see. He had a job to do, when all was said and done, and Captain Maestrangelo, his commanding officer, wouldn't be any too pleased if he risked blowing an important case in the hopes of getting a good-looking prostitute safely married off. There was nothing for it but to play Mario's part for him. He stared at the map of his Quarter on the wall behind the girl's head and said, `I didn't really want to say this.' Which was true enough.
`Say what?' She tensed, swallowing smoke, coughing.
`I've been talking to Mario-'
`Talking to him? Putting him off? Is that what you mean? Telling him to find some nice little respectable Italian girl who works in an office-'
`No, no ... nothing of that sort. No ...'
`What then? What?'
`Just the opposite, Dori. I've been doing my best for you but you've let him go off the boil, you know. By this time, he'll have talked about it-to his mates at work, to his mother even. Can you imagine the fuss a mother would kick up? What she'll be saying to him? The tears and tantrums, day in, day out?'
`He's never mentioned his mother to me. Anyway, why tell her? Why tell his friends? What business is it of anybody else's?'
`He was bound to tell them at some point.'
`He didn't have to tell them I was on the game.'
`But he couldn't avoid telling them ...'
`That I'm Albanian. Go on, say it! So I can't be anything but, can I? Fucking racists!'
`Yes, but in your case it's true, isn't it? So they'll all be trying to put him off. I doubt if he gets a minute's peace, at home or at work, and it's bound to be having its effect. Get him while the going's good, Dori, before you get AIDS, before Ilir gets out because you haven't given evidence, before your baby's born.'
It worked. An hour and a half later he had the signature of Dorina Hoxha on a statement, typed up by Lorenzini, that would keep Ilir inside for a few years. Now that Dori had talked, she would have to get off the streets and throw in her lot with Mario, who, fortunately, was an orphan.
The next time the carabiniere put his head round the door, the marshal, with a little sigh of pleasure, said, `Lunch ...'
Excerpted from Some Bitter Taste by Magdalen Nabb Copyright © 2002 by Magdalen Nabb and 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.