Perfectly still in the darkness, twelve-year-old Elettra waits.
Her legs crossed, her hands holding the string that will set off the trap, she's sitting stock-still. As motionless as the old wardrobes lined up around her in a series of shadows, one darker than the next.
Elettra breathes slowly, silently. She ignores the dust, letting it settle on her.
Come out, come out . . . , she thinks, only moving her lips.
Shrouded in the darkness, her fingers clutching the string, she listens. The boilers hum in the distance, pumping hot water through the pipes in the hotel rooms. The meters tick away softly, each one at its own pace. A dusty silence reigns over the basement.
The hotel, the city, the whole world seems incredibly far away.
It isn't cold.
It's the twenty-ninth of December.
It's the beginning. But Elettra doesn't know that yet.
* * *
A little noise tells her the mouse is approaching. Tick-tack.
The sound of tiny paws on the floor, coming from somewhere in the darkness.
Elettra slowly raises the string with a satisfied smile, thinking, The irresistible appeal of pecorino Romano cheese.
"No one can resist pecorino Romano," her aunt Linda always says when she's cooking.
Tick-tack. And then silence. Tick-tack. Then silence once again.
The mouse sniffs the air, warily following the aroma's path.
He's almost in my trap, thinks Elettra, rubbing her thumb against the string. Then, in her mind, she asks, How long is this going to take you, stupid mouse?
She's built a simple trap: a piece of pecorino placed under a shoe box, which she's suspended from an old umbrella shaft. A single tug will make it drop down on the mouse. The only difficult thing is figuring out, in the dark, when the mouse has reached the cheese.
She needs to follow her instinct. And instinct tells her it's not time yet.
A little bit longer.
Tick-tack goes the mouse. And then silence.
Elettra loves moments like this. The very last moments of a perfect plan, when everything is about to end in triumph.
She can already imagine her father's look of admiration when he gets back from his trip in the minibus. And her aunt Linda's shrieks when Elettra shows her the mouse, stone-cold dead, held up by the tail, as is fitting for a stone-cold dead mouse.
Her other aunt, Irene, would simply say, "You shouldn't go down to play in the basement. It's a very dangerous maze down there." And then she'd add, with a flash of cunning, "No one knows where that maze leads."
Elettra hasn't come down here to play. She's on a mission to catch the mouse.
That's not playing.
Tick-tack goes the mouse.
And then . . .
Then the basement ceiling suddenly starts quaking, rattled by a series of booms that make the bottles shake in their wooden racks.
It can't be! thinks Elettra, looking up. No, not now!
But the quaking doesn't stop. The dust starts to stir restlessly. The pounding on the floor grows stronger, turning into a series of furious footsteps accompanied by a voice that grows louder. In the end, it sounds like a siren.
"EEELEEEEEETTRAAAAAA!" the siren howls, throwing open the door to the basement.
A flood of light drenches the stairs, the stacked-up furniture, the bottles of wine, the wardrobes and the statues. Elettra's eyes dart straight out in front of her. The little gray mouse is standing there, on its hind legs, barely a centimeter inside the shoebox.
"You're not getting away from me!" she says, tugging the string.
The box falls, but not on the mouse.
"No!" she cries.
At the top of the stairs, Aunt Linda's hand gropes around for the light switches and flicks them all on. A dozen bulbs blink on, their blinding light driving away all traces of darkness. They're hanging from the ceiling inside round lampshades made out of old bottles.
"Elettra! Were you in the dark?"
"Darn it!" she shouts, jumping to her feet. "He got away again!"
"Who got away?" her aunt asks, baffled.
Elettra glares at her threateningly, the umbrella shaft in her hand. "What do you want now?"
At the top of the stairs, her aunt looks around at the basement as if she were seeing it for the first time. "Oh, what a mess!" she grumbles. "One of these days your father and I will just have to come tidy it all up. It's just not possible, I tell you, to have a basement in this condition!"
It's as though she has completely forgotten the reason she came down in the first place.
Looking at her, Elettra feels anger blazing up inside. Her aunt gracefully runs her hand over her thick gray hair, without understanding the damage she's done. The shoe box is lying on the floor, useless, and the vast stone basement is hiding a mouse who's still in perfectly good health. The whole maze of hallways and rooms packed with things now looks dingy in the harsh light of the bulbs.
"What do you want, Aunt Linda?" Elettra shouts a second time. And then, as the woman makes no sign of replying, she adds, "Aunt Linda!"
Her aunt stares at her with her big, clear eyes. "Elettra, dear," she says, perfectly calm. "Your father called from the airport. He says there's a problem with the rooms.
A serious problem."
"He didn't want to tell me."
"So where is he now?"
Aunt Linda smiles. "At the airport, naturally."
* * *
Fernando Melodia snaps his cell phone shut. The recorded voice of an operator has just informed him that he's out of credit.
"Oh, no," he groans beneath his perfectly trimmed mustache. "Now what do I do?"
Beside him are the Millers, an American couple with an angry-looking boy. They're standing tranquilly beside the sign for terminal A, watching over a pile of giant suitcases.
They're shorter than their son, a lean, tall beanpole with messy hair who's looking around as if he were expecting to be taken away and hanged. Maybe he's embarrassed about how his parents are dressed: an otter-gray checked jacket and polka-dot bow tie for him, a khaki-colored suit for her.
There they are, the Millers. They've arrived. They're pleased.
They've reserved the hotel's last available room to spend New Year's in Rome. The professor's also here to attend an important convention on the climate. His wife is clearly the type who loves shopping sprees. Their son, on the other hand, seems to have been dragged here against his will.
So that he can be recognized as the owner of the hotel, tucked under his arm is a sign on which he's written:
That was Elettra's idea. An excellent idea, although for a few long moments, Fernando had regretted bringing it. He'd simply held it up and the Millers had walked right over to him, smiling. The two adults, at least.
"It was so kind of you to come get us," Mr. Miller had thanked him, leaving behind his pile of luggage carts for a moment.
Fernando returned a sheepish smile and from that point on, that smile hasn't left his face for a moment.
A smile in which he'd gladly bury himself.
From the Hardcover edition.