It is April of 1964, and the cruelest month is breeding bad weather and worse news. And plenty of disturbing news is coming to Florence detective Inspector Bordelli. Bordelli’s friend, Casimiro, insists he’s discovered the body of a man in a field above Fiesole. Bordelli races to the scene, but doesn’t find any sign of a corpse. Only a couple of days later, a little girl is found at Villa Ventaglio. She has been strangled, and there is a horrible bite mark on her belly. Then another young girl is found murdered, with the same macabre signature. And meanwhile, Casimiro has disappeared without a trace. This new investigation marks the start of one of the darkest periods of Bordelli’s life: a nightmare without end, as black as the sky above Florence.
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DEATH AND THE OLIVE GROVE
An Inspector Bordelli Mystery
By MARCO VICHI
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2013 Marco Vichi
All rights reserved.
Florence, April 1964
At nine o'clock in the evening a tiny little man no taller than a child came through the front door of the police station, out of breath. He pressed up against the windowpane of the guard's booth, yelling politely that he wanted to speak with the inspector. Mugnai, inside, told him to calm down and asked him which inspector he was referring to. The dwarf squashed a dirty hand against the glass and yelled:
'Inspector Bordelli!' as if Bordelli were the only inspector in the place.
'What if he's not here?' asked Mugnai.
'I saw his Beetle outside,' said the little man. In the end he was let in. Mugnai gestured to his colleague Taddei, a burly sort with bovine eyes who was new on the job. Taddei got up with effort from his chair and, with the dwarf following behind, started climbing the stairs. At the end of a long corridor on the first floor, he stopped in front of Inspector Bordelli's door.
'Wait here,' he said, glancing at the tiny stranger's shabby shoes, which were still smeared with mud after a cursory cleaning. Then he knocked, disappeared behind the door, and came back out a few seconds later.
'Go on in,' he said.
The little man hurriedly slipped inside and Taddei heard Bordelli say:
'Casimiro, what on earth are you doing here?' Then the door suddenly closed. Unsure, Taddei scratched his head and knocked again. He stuck his head respectfully inside.
'Need anything, Inspector?'
'No, thanks. You can go now.'
Casimiro, repeatedly swallowing, waited silently for the ox to shut the door. He declined a cigarette from the inspector and remained standing in front of the desk.
'What's wrong, Casimiro? You seem agitated.'
'I've just seen something, Inspector, up Fiesole way ... I was walking through a field and—'
'If you don't want to smoke, have a beer at least,' said Bordelli, pointing towards the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet on the other side of the office. 'I'll have one too, please,' he added.
Casimiro dashed over and got the bottles, setting them down nervously on the desk. He was anxious to speak. Bordelli calmly opened the beers, flipping off the bottle-caps with his house keys, and passed one to Casimiro. The little man drank half of it in a single draught, grew a bit calmer, and finally sat down. The inspector avidly took two swigs, splashing his shirt, then set the bottle down on some of the papers strewn all across his desk. Hanging on the wall behind him was a dusty photo of the President of the Republic, with a horseshoe appended from the same nail. The air in the office always smelled of rotten cardboard and mushrooms, Bordelli thought.
Casimiro was squirming in his chair. He was wearing a child's jacket that was actually too big for him. Bordelli studied the dwarf's face, which was small and narrow, as if it had been crushed in a closing door. He'd known him since the end of the war, and the little man had always had the same tragic, nervous look about him. One rarely saw him laugh. At most he might make a bad joke about his physical condition and then snigger. Bordelli in his way was fond of him and had even, on occasion, invented phoney jobs for him as an informer, so he could give him a little money without making him feel too embarrassed.
'I was passing that way by chance, Inspector ... If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes—'
'Sorry to interrupt, Casimiro, but the second of the month was my birthday.'
'Happy birthday ...'
'Is that all?'
'What do you want me to say, Inspector?'
Bordelli felt like chatting that evening, perhaps because he was very tired ... He could only imagine what sort of rubbish Casimiro had to tell him.
'Aren't you going to ask me how old I am?' he said.
'How old are you?'
'Fifty-four, Casimiro, and I have no desire to grow old. Fifty-four, and still, when I go home, I have no one to kiss me on the lips.'
'Why don't you get a dog, Inspector?' the dwarf said in all seriousness. Bordelli smiled and slowly crushed his cigarette butt in the already full ashtray. Picking up his beer, he leaned back in his chair. The bottle had left a damp ring on a report.
'Just think, Casimiro, maybe, at this very moment, in some part of the world, the woman I have always been looking for has just been born. But if she was born today, by the time she's twenty I'll be a dotty old bed-wetter. And even if she was born forty years ago, it was probably in Algeria, Poland or Australia ... Fat chance I'll ever run into her ... Do you ever think about such things?'
'Inspector, can I tell you what I saw?'
'Of course, forgive me,' said Bordelli, resigned.
Casimiro set his beer down on the desk and stood up, growing agitated again.
'I was walking through a field and almost tripped over a dead body,' he said in a single breath, for fear the inspector might interrupt him again.
'Are you sure?' asked Bordelli.
'Of course I'm sure. He was dead, Inspector. Blood was dripping from his mouth.'
'Where was this?'
'Just past Fiesole,' Casimiro said darkly.
Bordelli stood up and, with one hand, grabbed his cigarettes and matches and, with the other, took his jacket from the back of his chair.
'What were you doing up there at this hour, Casimiro?'
'I was just passing through,' the dwarf said with lying eyes.
'Let's go and have a look at this corpse,' said Bordelli, walking out of the office.
'But what about my bicycle?' Casimiro asked, trotting beside him.
'We'll load it into my car.'
Reaching the end of the Viale Volga, they turned on to the road that led up to Fiesole. Past San Domenico they began to see the city below, a great dark blot dotted with points of light. A pile of cow shit with little candles on top, thought Bordelli.
Casimiro's short legs were stretched over the seat, his worn-out shoes barely reaching the edge. He was quiet and fiddling with a good-luck charm, a little plastic skeleton barely an inch long, with two tiny pieces of red glass in the eye sockets. He'd been carrying it with him for years, and Bordelli had stopped ribbing him about it some time ago.
Past the piazza at Fiesole, the little man said to turn down the Via del Bargellino, and a few hundred yards on, he began to look around nervously.
'Stop here, Inspector,' he said suddenly, jumping to his feet on the car seat. Bordelli parked the Beetle in an unpaved clearing and got out. Casimiro hopped down, more agitated than ever.
'I'll lead the way, Inspector.' He climbed up the small, dilapidated retaining wall beside the road and began to penetrate the low, dense vegetation. Bordelli followed behind him, looking around with care. High in the sky, a big bright moon cast a lugubrious glow on the countryside, but in compensation made it easy to see. To the right was a large, untilled field with a few now withered vines and several ivy-smothered trees. It seemed a shame to see a field reduced to such a state.
'You said you were passing this way by chance?' Bordelli asked, laughing.
'Sort of,' said Casimiro, continuing hurriedly through the brush.
'I haven't got a lira in my pocket, Inspector, what am I supposed to do?'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, now and then I have to go out and look for vegetables.'
'Around this time there should be some beans.'
'It's still a bit early for that. For the moment, there's only cabbage ... Come, let's turn here.'
'It's probably full of toads,' Bordelli said in disgust, hoping not to step on any. The grass was tall and damp and he could already feel his shoes getting wet. It had rained all week, and every so often he stepped in a mud puddle. The air felt almost cold. Spring couldn't make up its mind to arrive.
'Is it much farther?'
'It's down there,' Casimiro said softly, his little feet practically running. After passing through a muddy thicket they came out into a rather well-tended olive grove. The ground was densely carpeted with a short grassy weed. After all the mud, it was a pleasure to walk on. The light of the moon was so bright that their shadows were sharply outlined on the ground. And everything in shadow was all the darker.
'We're almost there,' the little man whispered, slowing his pace. Farther ahead, towering above them, was an eighteenth-century villa, a massive structure built on a steep embankment. The garden loomed sheer over the field, supported by a high, curved wall reinforced by great buttresses covered with ivy. The stone balustrade that ran along the top of the wall was the boundary between two worlds. The shutters on the villa's windows were all closed, and no light could be seen filtering through. Casimiro stopped a few yards from the wall, in front of a gigantic olive tree, and looked around in disbelief.
'The dead man was here, Inspector ... I swear he was here!'
Bordelli threw up his hands.
'Apparently he woke up,' he said, laughing. Casimiro still couldn't believe it and kept walking round the olive tree. At a certain point he bent down to pick something up.
'Look, Inspector,' he said, holding up a bottle. Bordelli grabbed it by the neck. It was made of colourless glass and rather small, and there was still a bit of dark liquid at the bottom. It was clean and could not have been outside for very long. He read the label: Cognac de Maricourt, 1913. He didn't know it. He pulled out the cork and sniffed it. It smelled like good cognac. He overcame the urge to have a sip and put the cork back in.
'The body was right here! I'm not crazy!' Casimiro insisted. 'Maybe he was only drunk.' The inspector put the bottle in his jacket pocket and, with the little man following behind him, approached the buttresses. They were huge and well constructed. Seen from there, the stone wall seemed even higher.
'What did this dead man look like?' Bordelli asked wearily.
'I didn't get a good look at him ... I was walking and, suddenly, there he was in front of me, and I ran away ... All I saw was that he had blood around his—'
'Quiet!' said Bordelli, pricking up his ears. All at once they heard the sound of hurried footsteps and panting, and on the moon-whitened turf appeared the silhouette of a short-haired dog running towards them. The most visible part of it was its teeth, which shone like wet marble. The inspector barely had time to pull out his Beretta and shoot the animal square in the mouth. The Doberman yelped and its feet gave out from under it, but in the momentum of its charge it rolled forward into Bordelli's legs, knocking him to the ground. It cried out again, kicking its feet in the air for a few seconds, then drew its legs in and stopped moving.
'Shit ...' said Bordelli.
'We're lucky you're a good shot,' said Casimiro, voice quavering slightly.
'Where the hell are you?' said Bordelli, unable to see him.
'Up here, Inspector.' Casimiro had climbed up an olive tree and was already coming down. Bordelli put his pistol away and got up. He looked around. Half his jacket was wet and his trousers were spattered with blood. He cleaned himself as best he could with a handkerchief, then knelt forward to have a better look at the Doberman. Its muzzle was a bloody pulp, and it had no collar.
'You know, Casimiro, I don't like the look of this one bit,' said Bordelli, looking up, but the little man was no longer there. He glanced around and saw him running through the olive trees towards the woods. He decided to let him go. He took a few steps back to get a full view of the villa. It was still all dark. The gunshot apparently hadn't woken anyone up. The house was either uninhabited, he thought, or whoever lived there was a heavy sleeper. He lit a cigarette and headed towards the woods. When he reached the car, he found the dwarf sitting on the bonnet, arms folded round his legs, eyes still flashing with fear.
'What got into you, Casimiro?'
'If I'd been alone he would have torn me to pieces,' the little man replied, shuddering.
'Do you come this way often?' asked Bordelli, cleaning his shoes against the wall's rocks.
'Now and then,' said Casimiro, hopping down from the bonnet and looking around with a tense expression on his face.
They got into the Beetle and headed back towards town. Casimiro sat there stiff and silent, the little skeleton between his fingers. They were already at the Regresso bend when Bordelli abruptly stopped the car.
'What are you doing, Inspector?'
'I'm going back up there.'
'I don't know,' said Bordelli. He made a U-turn and headed back up towards Fiesole, stepping on the accelerator. The Beetle's vibrations came straight up into their backbones. A short distance later he turned again on to the Via del Bargellino and parked in the same spot. He opened the car door and put one foot outside.
'You're not coming?' he asked Casimiro, seeing that he hadn't moved.
'I'd rather wait here,' the little man said gloomily.
'Suit yourself Bordelli got out of the car and, retracing the same route, rushed back to the olive grove. The moon was beginning to light up the walls of the villa, which made it look even more abandoned. He approached the buttresses, gun drawn, and saw at once that the Doberman's carcass was gone. All that remained was a bit of blood on the grass. He checked the immediate surroundings, but the carpet of compact grass showed no footprints. He shook his head, thinking he'd acted stupidly. If only he hadn't left the scene ...
All at once he heard a sound of crunching gravel that seemed to come from the villa's garden. He crouched instinctively behind a buttress, hiding in the shadow. Looking up, he saw a man's head peer out over the balustrade at the top of the wall. He was able to get a good look at him in the moonlight. The man had very white hair and a long black mark on his neck. He stood there for a few seconds, scanning the olive grove with his eyes, then disappeared.
There was deep silence. The only sound was the wind rustling the leaves of the olive trees. In the distance a dog began to bark angrily, every so often howling like a wolf. The inspector waited a few more minutes, holding his breath and looking up until the coast seemed clear. He stepped out of the shadow but hugged the wall, to lessen the risk of being seen from the villa. When he found a more shielded path, he headed back towards the woods, turning round repeatedly to look at the house, but seeing no sign of life. He hurried back to the car and found Casimiro standing on the seat with his face against the window.
'The Doberman's gone, but I saw someone look out from the garden above,' said Bordelli, quietly closing the car door.
'That bloody dog ...' Casimiro said with a tragic look in his eye, clutching his little skeleton.
Bordelli calmly lit a cigarette and blew the smoke against the windscreen.
'Any idea who lives in that house?' he asked the dwarf.
'Some foreigner who's never there.'
'How do you know?'
'Foreigner from where?'
'Where's the entrance to the villa?'
'Up above here, on the Bosconi road ... Why?'
'Just curious.' The inspector started up the car, turned it round, and drove up to the top of the hill. That man with the black spot on his neck seemed familiar to him ... He felt as if he had seen someone with a mark like that before ... Or perhaps it was only his investigative imagination ...
He turned on to Via Ferrucci, in the direction of the Bosconi. After rounding a few bends he stopped the Beetle in a spot where the shoulder broadened, not far from the villa's gate, which bore a plaque with indecipherable initials on it.
'You wait here,' he said to Casimiro, getting out of the car.
'Where are you going?'
'I just want to go and have a look.'
The road was feebly illuminated by a yellow street lamp. Bordelli arrived at the gate and tried to push it open, but it was locked. The garden was full of high-trunked trees and overgrown plants, which shielded the dark ground from the moonlight. Scattered everywhere were large, empty vases, terracotta jugs, and strange marble statues of varying size and shape. The villa was set back a good way from the road and surrounded by cedars that rose well above the roof. On that side, too, the shutters were closed tight, with no light visible behind them. The inspector pulled the chain of the doorbell and heard it ring solemnly inside the house. There was no reply. He rang it again, and again, then twice consecutively. In the end he saw some light filter out between the slats of one shutter. A small light came on over the stone moulding of the front door, which opened at once. A human silhouette appeared on the threshold.
Excerpted from DEATH AND THE OLIVE GROVE by MARCO VICHI. Copyright © 2013 Marco Vichi. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was another Inspector Bordelli translated by Stephen Sartarelli a superb translator. This is about Italy trying to rebuild from the destruction made by WWII. A finely written story and completely memorable characters that are treated with compassion and warmth. ***This book was received in exchange for an honest review***