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Northern Italy, 1985: Commissario Piero Trotti is on the verge of retirement from the police force. He is 56 years old, and though he is widely respected for his integrity and work ethic, he is not widely liked. The junior detectives he works with transfer because he’s too hard on them; his fellow commissioner is trying to force him out. Even his family has walked out of his life: his adult daughter has moved to Bologna, and his wife has left him for New York. All signs are telling Trotti that he needs to make a change.
Instead, he digs in his heels. The city is in an uproar after a young girl is attacked in her bed by an intruder. Aided by the one junior officer who still listens to him—a dogged, unflinching female brigadier named Ciuffi—Trotti sets to work, trying to figure out the truth.
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Chapter 1: Body
There was the smell of coffee on his breath and, as he spoke, small clouds of moisture escaped from his mouth into the chill air. “I am too old.”
Pisanelli smiled but said nothing. He bumped the car up onto the pavement. The two men got out of the Lancia.
The first light of the new day rose above the colorless buildings. No wind, no traffic and, apart from the changing lights at the crossroads, the city at four o’clock in the morning was dead. Dead except for the distant whine of a siren.
Accompanied by the echo of their footfalls they crossed Piazza Castello.
On the far side of the square, a police motorcycle stood at the entrance to an apartment building. There was another vehicle, with the blue lamp revolving unheeded in the silent, first dawn.
They went through the open doors.
A non-commissioned officer saluted and accompanied Trotti and Pisanelli up the stairs. A building that was neither rich nor poor, it had been built at the time of Fascism and was still hanging on to its fading respectability. The walls had once been painted but were now grubby; no graffiti, just the marks of rubbing shoulders and the contact of dirty hands and greasy clothes.
The air carried no smell other than that of the chill September morning and the policeman’s cigarette. Pisanelli took the stairs two at a time; Trotti followed him.
Families, dressed for the night, but with faces already accustomed to the new day, had come out on to the landings. They watched interested and unblinking at the passage of the three men. Trotti was out of breath by the time they reached the third floor. The doorway on the left side was wide open and yellow light flooded out.
Thin traces of splashed blood across the stone floor and the sound of somebody crying.
Trotti bit his lip.
The NCO placed his hand on the door handle and Maresciallo Santostefano stepped forward. He was wearing boots and had not removed his motorcycle helmet; the chin-strap hung at the side of his round, unimaginative face.
“The girl has been taken to the hospital—she’s just left.”
“The girl, Laura, she’s . . .”
Trotti interrupted, “What happened?”
“I was called at half past three. Why me, I don’t know; I don’t work for Pronto Soccorso.” He made a movement of irritation, then Santostefano gestured through the open door to the far side of the landing. “The neighbor’s got a phone. He phoned one-one-three.”
Santostefano hesitated, taken aback by the brusqueness of the question. “Somebody tried to kill the girl.” Santostefano turned to look at the other people in the small room: a room that looked lived in, with a heavy sideboard, a wooden table and a divan that had been pulled down to form a bed. Dark smears on the white bedsheet. “Signor Vardin was next door sleeping and he was woken by the screaming of his daughter.” The policeman nodded uncomfortably toward the narrow-shouldered man dressed in a pajama bottom and a singlet.
Trotti turned and looked at the man. The face was creased and the eyes appeared as if they were accustomed to suffering. Vardin had placed his arm around the shoulders of the weeping woman.
“Signor Vardin jumped out of bed and came in here. He had just enough time to turn the light on and see somebody darting out of the door—out of the door and down the stairs.” Santostefano added, “Signor Vardin says that he tried to follow the aggressor . . .”
Vardin removed his arm from the woman’s shoulder. “Of course I would have followed him and I would have killed him.” The voice was a hoarse whisper devoid of menace. “I would have followed him but I saw Laura and I saw that she was covered in blood and she was moaning and calling out, ‘Papa, Papa.’”
“What did you do, Signor Vardin?”
There was dry saliva at the corner of his lips. “Laura is twelve years old—a little girl. My daughter is a little girl.”
Santostefano said, “The work of a maniac.” He crossed his arms against his leather jacket and, for an instant, a grim smile lingered on the full lips. “At least ten stab wounds, Commissario—not deep, I think, but blood all over the body. The ambulance was quick, and she was breathing normally when they took her away.”
The southern accent grated on Trotti’s nerves.
“I couldn’t tell if there was internal hemorrhaging, but there was no blood in the mouth.”
The woman had been crying in silence, a knuckle pushed hard against her lips; she now started to slump forward. “My baby is going to die.” She would have fallen to the cold floor but her husband held her. “To die.”
“Commissario.” Santostefano took Trotti by the arm—a strange act of intimacy for a member of Polizia Stradale—and led him toward a corner of the room. Trotti noticed the bronze tower of Pisa on a shelf and the unframed picture of the Pope. “She wanted to accompany the child in the ambulance but I told Vardin that she would have to stay here until you came.” He shook his head. “I think she’s going to need treatment. Something to calm her. Before you came she was screaming hysterically.”
Trotti turned and looked at the woman and, beyond her, at the paling morning sky over the city.
Chapter 2: Papa
The cup of coffee was half-empty and fast growing cold.
The smell coming from the hall had destroyed Trotti’s desire to drink.
“Time?” The eyes were pale grey and they looked at Trotti cautiously.
“What time did you get back with your family from Piazza Vittoria?”
The man fumbled with the packet of cigarettes that Trotti had given him; the green packet of Esportazione appeared strangely small and crumpled in the large, work-worn hands. “Time?” he repeated in his hoarse whisper.
“You went with your family to the piazza, didn’t you?”
The man was silent.
“Signor Vardin, you went with your family to the piazza last night.”
He looked up. “I’m sorry, but I haven’t slept.” He ran a hand across his forehead. “I can still see that screen dancing in front of my eyes.” He rubbed at the side of his nose while screwing up his eyelids. “I was sitting too close to it and the man in the white coat . . .”
Vardin nodded. He spoke with difficulty and Trotti wondered whether the man’s lungs or larynx had been damaged. “I was trying to help him. The man in the white coat, I think he was getting impatient with me. But I only saw him—the man who attacked my daughter—I only saw him for a second—for a fraction of a second.”
“However, you have managed to give Maserati a description, haven’t you?”
“On the machine. What do you call it? On the computer.” The face brightened for an instant. “He got me to help him draw the face—but I can’t be sure. The attacker—I scarcely saw him.”
“You say he was a young man?”
“He looked young to me—I saw him as he ran down the stairs. I saw that he was wearing a jacket and that he had long hair.”
“You had never seen him before?”
“No.” The reply was prompt.
Trotti smiled. “It is very good of you to help.”
“I just want to help my daughter.”
“You can help her by trying to answer the questions, Signor Vardin. I realize how you must be feeling but please—please try to cooperate as much as you can. You want us to find the man who did these terrible things to Laura.” Trotti took out his pen and started drawing lines on the yellow stationery. “Can you remember at what time you got back from Piazza Vittoria last night?”
A hesitant nod. “It must have been after twelve.”
“Not very late, then?”
“School starts next week. I don’t want my girls to be tired.” He paused, added, “A good education is the most important thing.”
“Of course,” Trotti said. “What school does Laura go to?”
“She is an intelligent girl—like her mother.” The hint of pride while the eyes remained on the packet of cigarettes. “And she is going to do well for herself. Not a job in a factory for Laura—she is going to go to university to become a teacher.”
“What school did you say, Signor Vardin?”
“She is at the Scuola Media in via Amfiteatro—and one day she is going to be a teacher. A math teacher.” For a moment he looked up and the dusty, grey eyes met Trotti’s.
Trotti said nothing.
“If she lives,” the man added in his whisper.
Trotti spoke briskly. “There was a public dance in the square and the girls were treated to a pizza that you bought for them at the Pizzeria Bella Napoli?”
Signor Vardin said, “My two daughters and Bettina.”
“Bettina is my niece. You saw her. She and Netta, my other daughter, are good friends—they always have been, ever since they were little; and now with Bettina’s parents in Piemonte for the funeral of Zio Moisè, she is staying with us until the end of the week.”
“She is a friend of Netta’s.”
“And your niece is staying until next Sunday?”
He nodded. “She’s a sweet girl.”
“How old is your daughter Netta?”
“Netta—and Bettina—are seventeen. There’s two months’ difference between them.”
Trotti opened the drawer and slid his hand inside. “So there were five of you—your wife, you and the three girls?” His hand found old wrappers but no sweets.
Signor Vardin’s glance remained on the cigarettes. “It is nice to get out once in a while. And the mayor organizes the dances at this time of year. A chance to get out and meet old friends. Friends from the factory. The evenings are still quite warm and it is good to talk.”
“You work at the sewing-machine factory?”
“I used to work. Until last year.” The lips pressed against each other. “For six years. Not a bad job and I couldn’t go back to the quarries. Not after I started to lose my voice.” He nodded, without looking at Trotti. “The silicon in the air.”
“And then later, after the girls had danced and you had danced a couple of waltzes with Signora Vardin, you returned home? At midnight?”
“We went to the gelateria and had an ice. But the air had grown chill and we sat inside.” He added, “A mist coming up from the river.”
“And when did you get back to Piazza Castello?”
Their eyes met for a fleeting moment. “Just after twelve—the clock at San Teodoro was striking midnight.”
Trotti looked at the man and felt sorry for him. He was not very old—perhaps even younger than Trotti—but his pain was like a weight bearing down on the narrow, bony shoulders. He had put on a blue suit, but the collar of his shirt was undone and unshaven whiskers stood out from the skin of his neck. There was a quiet humility about Signor Vardin and the Friuli accent seemed to render him more vulnerable.
“You think she’s going to die, Signor Commissario?”
“Of course not.”
“She is a lovely child.”
“As soon as there is any news, the hospital will ring. Tenente Pisanelli is there with your wife.”
“If anything happens to our little girl, it will be the death of my wife. She has a poor heart—ever since she came to this city she has had trouble with her heart and if we didn’t need the money she would have given up working years ago. It is all my fault.”
“Please take a cigarette, Signor Vardin.”
“I never smoke,” he said simply and dropped the packet of Esportazione. “Not with my lungs.”
“Then perhaps some more coffee?”
“It is all my fault. Normally she sleeps in the big bed. But because of Bettina being there, we told her to sleep on the couch.”
Trotti frowned. “Who slept on the couch?”
“And the two big girls slept on the bed.”
“I don’t understand.” Trotti had been about to lift the coffeepot; now his arm was motionless and his eyes—tired and bloodshot—were fixed on Signor Vardin.
“The two big girls—Netta and my niece—slept in the bed.”
“Who normally sleeps on the couch?”
“On the couch?”
Trotti did not hide his irritation. “Where does Laura normally sleep?”
“When I was working at the factory . . .”
Trotti cut him short by banging the coffeepot on the table. “Did Laura normally sleep in the bedroom?”
The man looked at him in hurt surprise.
Speaking slowly and carefully as if he were dealing with a child, Trotti asked, “Are you saying that normally Laura slept in the big bed in the bedroom?”
“In the old days I would get up at half past five and have my breakfast.” The man nodded his narrow head. He had high cheekbones and sunken cheeks that were already dark although he had shaved. “In the old days, when I was working at the factory. But that’s nearly a year ago—a year that I haven’t had a job. And the wife doesn’t get up until after seven. So there’s no harm in letting Netta sleep there. She likes it. Don’t know why—it’s small for her.”
“Netta sleeps in the kitchen?” He nodded slowly. “I haven’t had a proper job now for nearly a year. So rather than sleep with her sister . . .”
“But last night Netta was sleeping with her cousin Bettina? That’s right, isn’t it?”
“I don’t get up early in the mornings.”
“And your younger daughter, Laura, was sleeping in Netta’s place—on the couch?”
Then Signor Vardin frowned. “There’s nothing wrong in that.”
“It is possible the r— . . . the man . . . it is possible he knew your house?”
“Why would he know my house?”
“And it’s possible he was expecting to find not Laura but her seventeen-year-old sister, warm and tucked up on the kitchen couch?”
“But he attacked Laura—not Netta.”
“Does your elder daughter—does Netta have a boyfriend, Signor Vardin?”
Only then did the eyes seem to register what Trotti was saying.