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loved this book and hated putting it down. It manages to be both a taut thriller and a beautifully observed story of a young woman’s coming-of-age. Michael Dibdin meets Muriel Spark.”
Working in the city in August just wasn't civilized. Climbing the stairs to his office for an eight-thirty appointment foisted on him by Giuli, his assistant insofar as anyone was, with a tiny, scalding plastic cup of espresso in his hand, Sandro reflected glumly on this conclusion. Only the dregs of society found themselves sitting at a desk in August, only the driven and desperate and enslaved. Forty degrees in the shade by day, and at two-thirteen that morning, when Sandro had been gasping like a fish in the bathroom, it had been thirty-one.
Luisa had not wanted him to buy a thermometer – Why torture yourself? What is this obsession with numbers? – but Sandro had done it on the sly; it hung just outside the bathroom window. Going in there in the early hours, as he often needed to do these days, he could lean out and take a look.
Thirty-one degrees three hours before dawn, and not a breath of cooler air anywhere in the city. Even the moon, shining perfectly round and white overhead, seemed to give out heat. During the day there were distractions but at night, in those long, dead hours between midnight and dawn when by rights the world should be cooling, the heat bore down like a weight. The very thought of Florence's tonnes of sun-soaked stone, of the eighty kilometres of baked earth separating them from the coast, of the humidity that rose off the sluggish river and the encircling hills that held it in, was enough to bring on a panic attack.
Which was all it was: panic. The heat.
Luisa had pointed out to him a week ago – when the month had begun not with a bang but with the sigh of departing life: empty parking spaces everywhere, shutters pulled down – that now he was a private investigator, a freelance who could theoretically please himself, whereas when Sandro had been a captain in the Polizia dello Stato, he had been obliged to work in August.
'That was different,' Sandro had said.
Hands on hips, Luisa had not dignified this with a reply, but Sandro could have defended himself if he had had the energy.
It had been different, though: different having one desk of many in a big, air-conditioned building, moving through quiet corridors, everyone being in the same boat, the bar next to the police station staying open all year round – even on the mid-August holiday, Ferragosto – not to mention Christmas Day – to cater to the officers. Who after all were providing an essential service. And out in the patrol car, there had always been Pietro to talk to.
Sandro's partner – official or otherwise – for twenty of his thirty years in the Polizia dello Stato, Pietro Cavallaro was a modest, thoughtful man six years his junior, with a round, red-headed wife of permanently sunny disposition and a pretty daughter now coming up to eighteen. (Sandro registered that the big day was tomorrow, wasn't it? He'd arranged to meet Pietro tonight, with their gift for the girl. Damn.) A careful, meticulous man, slow to anger: the perfect complement to Sandro, who had been described as impatient, irascible, impetuous – given to obsessive pursuits but also flashes of insight.
Very occasional flashes, these days, Sandro thought gloomily, gazing out of the window, and no Pietro to bounce them off. He heard a siren, not far away, and by ear he mapped its path around the viale from the four-lane modern span of the Ponte alla Vittoria to the choked roundabout of the Porta Romana. A motorino crash on one of the bends that the Viale Michelangelo carved through the wooded hillside south of the city, perhaps? There was at least one a week. Lucky if the kid wasn't under a bus. He turned away, telling himself simply to be grateful he wasn't knocking on some parent's door.
If August was a quiet month in the police, there was always something to do: there was paperwork to catch up on; there was drunkenness among tourists, rough sleepers to be moved on, and never mind the domestic squabbles that broke out or the psychiatric patients wandering the streets. People just went nuts in the heat, whether they were already on the edge or not.
And now Sandro was going the same way. 'So take some time off,' said Luisa. The irony was, last year it had been Sandro begging her to take it easy, as she recovered from the cancer treatment.
Sitting down at his desk out of habit, Sandro put a hand to his testicles, just for luck. God willing, Luisa would be two years cancer-free in January. He knew you couldn't breathe again until five had passed, but Luisa was doing a good job: ever practical, she had decided that no purpose was served by thinking about it, so she didn't.
Even Giuli had been away for a week to the seaside. 'On your own?' Luisa had quizzed her straight off, never one for the indirect approach – and on her return, brown as a nut, with a big smile and new fine lines around her eyes ('Skin cancer, yeah, I know, I know. But it does make you feel good, the sun, doesn't it?'), she'd been straight out of the gates with a favour to ask.
'I don't know if she's got any money,' Giuli had pleaded, calling round after her first day back at work at the Women's Centre. Following it up slyly with, 'But it's not as if you're overrun, is it?'
Standing at the desk with the sweat already beading on his forehead – next year, air-con, vowed Sandro – he could hear her downstairs, the cheerful clatter at the front door, a babble of conversation. She was bringing the client in herself. He downed the thimbleful of coffee, crushed the tiny plastic cup and dropped it in the wastebasket.
'Hey, Giuli,' he called through the open door.
She called back, 'Hey, Babbo.'
'Babbo': Dad. It was only half a joke. Part-time at the Women's Centre – giving free advice on STDs, contraception, pregnancy and the rest for Florence's errant females, of which there were many and various, from middle-class runaways to Roma to illegal immigrants – and part-time receptionist-cum-assistant to Sandro, Giulietta Sarto could be a nightmare, but she was also the closest thing he and Luisa would ever have to a child.
Forty-three this year, if he remembered right, and now three years clean of drugs and booze and bad men. Giuli was an ex-con into the bargain, although no one but the most hard-hearted would have been unmoved by the full story behind her incarceration. Not a trivial matter, murder, but the man whose throat she'd cut had been her abuser and a murderer himself into the bargain, and Giuli, drug-addicted, anorexic and living on the street, had run out of options.
It was taking them longer than he expected to get up the two short flights of stairs, and Sandro found himself listening. To the slow steps, a couple taken, then a pause. To Giuli's voice, cheerful, encouraging, solicitous. Sandro was thinking with pride that she'd turned out to be surprisingly good at compassion, little tough-nut Giuli, with her sharp little face and her spiky aubergine-dyed hair. And still listening, he heard the other voice, apologetic, breathless.
His curiosity overcoming him, Sandro was at the door himself when Giuli pushed it open on him, ushering in his first client of the day – the month. My God, thought Sandro, and he took an awkward step back, suddenly nervous as a cat at the sight that presented itself.
'Sandro,' Giuli said cheerfully, 'this is Anna Niescu.' And fixed him with a frown that said, Pull yourself together. She's only pregnant.
And she certainly was.
But somehow more pregnant than anyone he'd ever seen before. Not because Anna Niescu was huge, exactly, although the great thrust of her belly was surely close to a full-term gestation, round as a beachball and tight as a drum under a thin cotton dress. If anything, it was because she herself was so tiny, staggering under the burden of her pregnancy: a sweet, small, heart-shaped face, narrow shoulders, one childlike hand clasping a big, cheap handbag against her stomach. Her black hair, shiny as liquorice, was parted in the centre and drawn back in a tight bun: nothing but a child herself, thought Sandro.
He could feel the unwary emotion rising in him at the sight of her. Stop it, he told himself. He stepped hastily back and, remembering himself, pulled out a chair. 'Please,' he gestured. 'Please. Sit down.'
Giuli stood in the door, arms folded.
'Giuli,' said Sandro, knowing she was about to put her oar in, 'a glass of water, maybe? For Signora – ah – for Anna?'
Rolling her eyes, Giuli turned on her heel.
Watching her lower herself gingerly on to the bentwood chair, one hand behind her for support, Sandro remained standing, his heart heavy. Because it was clear to him, first of all, that Anna Niescu's was an old story and a hopeless one, even clearer that, no, she didn't have any money, and clearest of all that Sandro would have to help her anyway.
'So,' he said gently. 'When are you due?'CHAPTER 2
If people weren't where you expected them to be, well, no wonder: it was August.
Roxana Delfino sat behind her plexiglas teller's screen in the bank's gloom with nothing better to do and wondered, for example, whether the Carnevale had closed for August this year, because their guy hadn't been in with the porn cinema's takings in a cloth bag, as he had every Tuesday since Roxana'd been there.
In Florence in August you couldn't rely on anything: not the parking regulations, not the market stalls, not the staff of your favourite bar nor the stock of your favourite grocery, supposing they were open at all. A month off in August, that was the tradition, sometimes brought forward and stretched to five weeks if July became unbearable. For Roxana, who liked things the way she liked them, August in the city was a nightmare.
Her mother said it was why she hadn't got a man: had said it again last night. 'You're thirty-three,' she'd said darkly. 'It's a dangerous age. I had three kids by the time I was thirty-three. You're just too fussy, Roxana. You have to have everything – just so.' As if she, Violetta Delfino, was any different.
Roxana had still been grinding her teeth over that when at seven-thirty that morning she had zipped on her silver Vespa down the narrow, high-sided length of the Via Romana, a road that annoyed her every day for its not-quite-straightness, kinked in the middle so she had to ease off halfway down to make the bend. There was – as there always was, even in August – a bus looming behind her, just waiting for her to make a mistake. Not yet eight in the morning and the hot wind had blown on her face like it came straight from a hairdryer.
Roxana had kept her cool, her gloved hands steady on the handlebars; she heard the bus squeal reluctantly to a stop in her wake and she had sailed on.
Then down the Via Maggio, dead straight, stone palaces to either side with their huge eaves projecting so far into the street that they almost met overhead. At ground level the darkened interiors of antique shops, all closed for the month: some with brown cloth blinds down, some with metal shutters, some displaying brocade chaises and heavy wooden frames with patrician disregard for the possibility of a smash and grab. Would anyone have the energy in this heat, Roxana had wondered as she sailed past, to ramraid, to heave all that stuff into a van? The answer, she supposed, was yes: there were always some people desperate enough. Last night a baby had cried somewhere in a nearby house for hours in the heat and eventually a row had interrupted, the child's father shouting at its mother, the mother screeching, Just do it. Finish me off.
Three kids, and where were the others, Mamma? she wanted to say, but never did. Got their freedom and left Roxana to look after Ma. Luca in London, twenty-nine and working in a bar, clubbing till dawn most nights, taking God knew what illicit substances – but Luca could do no wrong. Susanna was up north, working in a hotel in Lugano on the Swiss border, with two kids under three and a feckless husband who kept disappearing, but at least she was married, at least she had her family. And Roxana wasn't going to tell Mamma how it really was: and even if Susi called at least once a week to moan about Carlo, sounding worn out and angry, then she'd say, the kids were beautiful, it was worth it. That was always how the call ended: a coded warning not to tell Mamma.
And they were beautiful; Roxana had a picture of them at work, stuck under the counter where the customers wouldn't see it. She looked down now, no need to be furtive, the place was as quiet as the grave. Paolino was one and a half and had his dad's dark red hair and a fierce little face; Rosa, three, black-eyed and cherubic, took after her grandmother.
Not that easy though, Mamma. As if she could just nip out of the bank and on to the Via del Corso in her lunch break and nab a man with I want kids tattooed on his forehead.
Mamma had this theory that if women lived alone too long – chance would be a fine thing: what she meant was, lived without a man too long – they turned strange and fussy, liked their own little way of doing things too much. They turned into spinsters, and according to Mamma, Roxana was a prime example. 'Sometimes,' she'd pronounce, watching Roxana restack the dishwasher or order the cupboards or check they'd double-locked the door, 'I wonder if you've got that thing. That obsessive-compulsive whatsit.'
Sliding her neat little motorino into the space under the embankment wall that was unofficially reserved for it next to Valentino's fat, shiny, showoff Triumph motorbike, Roxana had climbed off gingerly, not wanting to raise a sweat, not before a day's work. She unclipped her helmet, eased off the thin cotton jacket and stowed them away in the pillion box. Removed her handbag and locked the box, fastened the big yellow steel immobilizer and set off for the bank. Even then as she turned off the river into the warren of streets east of the Uffizi, she looked back over her shoulder, to be sure.
The city seemed so empty, bathed in heat and desolate, but there were always thieves: always. Roxana was a Florentine through and through, born in the hospital of Careggi that sat on the hills to the north; she'd been knocked off her motorino twice – a broken wrist the first time, a collarbone the second – and mugged seven times. Not in the last couple of years, though: she was careful these days. Her mother's little villa in Galluzzo, where they had both lived since her father had died last year of a heart attack at fifty-eight, had been burgled three times. The thieves came in the early hours, high on something: you woke up in the morning to find wires where the flatscreen TV had been (My only pleasure, these days, Ma had wheedled to get her to buy it) and her handbag gone.
Now the revolving security airlock hissed, the mechanical voice instructed the new arrival to turn around and remove all metallic objects from all pockets, as it always did. Only the odd flustered tourist, having strayed off the beaten track, ever complied; the security capsule's early morning occupant stood patiently and waited for the door to open.
Here he is, thought Roxana, almost with disappointment. The bank's most reliable customer, not quite regular as clockwork any more – it was close to ten by now, rather than the usual eight-fifteen – but —
It wasn't him. Signora Martelli, proprietress of the newspaper stand in the tiny Piazza Santa Felicita shuffled through the door, dragging her shopping trolley after her, pale and sweaty with the heat under her habitual full makeup, to deposit her meagre takings. The typical customer: on her last legs, heart trouble, swollen ankles, the summer would probably see her out. Roxana eyed her. She didn't envy the executors of that will. The old lady wasn't letting ill health mellow her – she was one of those who had her favourites, Roxana theorized, a working woman who disapproved of other working women. Yet, with a disdainful sniff, she eventually allowed Roxana to investigate the failure of a standing order to pay her water bill. Not quite satisfied by the explanation that an annual review had been specified on the standing order and it had lapsed, she had shuffled off again, leaving the place to return to glum silence, dust motes hanging in the murk.
The last time they'd been burgled, Roxana had been woken by the intruders and she'd got up, bleary with rage, the heavy immobilizer for the Vespa in her hand, only Ma had appeared in her bedroom doorway white with terror and clung on to her. Roxana had had to stand there, stupid big piece of plastic-sheathed metal in her hand, and do absolutely nothing. Nothing but stroke Mamma's hair to calm her. They hadn't even claimed, not wanting the insurance to go higher: Roxana had gone for the cheapest TV she could find this time.
Excerpted from The Dead Season by Christobel Kent. Copyright © 2012 Christobel Kent. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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