Someone shot the victim, identified as a Romanian mason, once to the temple. A three-story building and a wooded area flank the playground that is now a crime scene.
Now, Ruggeri must try to find out who the laborer is, why he was killed and who is to blame. His investigation leads him to the building nearby and its odd cast of characters.
By picking apart statements from witnesses, Ruggeri discovers that the victim was killed in the woods and that a dog chased the killer. One witness even says she saw someone leave the body in the playground.
But even these details do little to reveal why the laborer was killed and by whom. As Ruggeri continues to investigate, he comes upon mysteries within mysteries, including another murder victim.
Join Ruggeri in a mystery full of quirky characters and unexpected twists. Another person just might turn up dead if the detective is unable to follow The Serpent's Tracks.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.26(d)|
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The Serpent's Tracks
By Maurizio Salva
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Maurizio Salva
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe First Tracks
Rain was falling on the Cittadella.
Flashes of lightning in the sky revealed glimpses of the city, which was so different yet so much like all the others. The beating raindrops, seeking their destination, filled a silence abruptly broken by loud rumbles of thunder over Alessandria.
The rain was falling on a corpse.
He was sitting haphazardly on a merry-go-round, the kind propelled by a hand lever, located near a bunch of other playground equipment, including two swings, a slide, and three spring riders that children could rock by pushing their feet against the ground. The small playground was located at one end of the large garden belonging to a three-story building located near a wooded area that served as a natural border to the outside world. To the right and left, two parallel hedges, a meter high and at least thirty meters long, formed an orderly border to the park, embellished with recently planted trees and beds overflowing with flowers. The bars of an iron fence rose several meters above the hedge on the right. The hedge on the left opened to an entryway for the residents of the buildings next to the park. Each building was three, four, five, or six stories high. Their gardens were all connected. The corpse was located at theedge of this immense residential and commercial area known as New Alessandria, in the western part of the city. Beyond the woods, a stretch of road had just been completed to efficiently connect the outlying area to the south with the western section of the city.
A large floodlight lit the crime scene.
The forensics team was busy covering the space surrounding the corpse with a cloth. They worked together, moving nervously, and their overlapping shadows, moving even more nervously, created incomprehensible designs on the ground. When they finished this activity they would then take measurements and photographs, make a videotape, and use chemical reagents to accurately reconstruct the events that brought them there.
The victim had been killed by a gunshot to his temple. His head was leaning to the left; his legs, which were pointing away from the merry-go-round, formed a 45-degree angle, and both his heels were planted on the ground. His right hand was resting on the round tube that moved the merry-go-round, and the fingers of his left hand brushed the short grass, which was soaked with water and blood.
Police Commissioner Alberto Ruggeri carefully observed the activity taking place. By his side, Inspector Cordara blew heavy smoke from an unfiltered cigarette into the air. The smoke floated in waves under the umbrella until it escaped into the cold and damp late-November air.
Ruggeri left the scene for a minute and stood a few yards from the man's lifeless body. With a wave of his hand he caught the attention of the head of forensics, a tall, thin man in his fifties with a gaunt face.
The forensics chief nodded, approached Ruggeri silently, and said, "The rain is making it difficult to work, Commissioner." He turned toward his team, spread his arms wide, and added, "Anybody could have had access to this place, in fact. I don't like it."
"Do you think he was killed here or somewhere else?" asked Ruggeri steadily, bringing his left hand to his chin.
The other man spread his arms even wider and said, "Right now I couldn't say. The bloodstains on the grass may give us some answers. As you can see, his cranium was punctured by the bullet. We'll try to find the shell and the cartridge. We'll look for physical evidence and any fragments we can find. Naturally we'll run a ballistics test. The man looks about 5 foot 9 inches tall. We'll have to wait for the coroner to get here before we can touch him. I don't want to leave anything to chance, but I need time, Commissioner. Luckily it will be morning soon and maybe it will stop raining. We have to find out the time of death. I'm sure you'll agree they wouldn't have shot him in the late afternoon or after that. Unfortunately, the coroner is late getting here." He looked down at the corpse.
Ruggeri looked at Cordara, who had come up to listen to their conversation, and he ordered, "Call Dr. Giorgi again."
Cordara rubbed his eyes and said, "I already tried, Commissioner. No one answers his home phone or his cell."
The head of forensics said, "I'm going back to work. I think we'll be here for a while." He headed back to the others, walking in his usual silent manner.
"Thanks, Doctor," said Ruggeri, as the man walked away.
The inspector took his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and said in a low voice, "I'll try again."
"Keep trying until you get an answer. This Giorgi is a weird guy. The folks from Pesaro told me he's good at his job, but he's a bit unpredictable. We'll see ..." Ruggeri was thinking out loud, slightly irritated.
"Commissioner, should I send him a message and ask him to meet us here?" asked Cordara, certain that his boss's answer would be in the affirmative. Ruggeri nodded, snorting angrily, impatiently awaiting the end of this operation.
For him, the moment had arrived to come up with some theories.
When the inspector put his telephone back in his pocket, the commissioner, walking slowly and pointing his finger at the victim, began, "I could be wrong, but his appearance leads me to believe that he is not Italian."
Cordara took another look at the unfortunate man, lit yet another cigarette, and said, "I agree with you."
"His clothes look clean. Black jacket, white shirt, black pants, and brown loafers. Overall, he's dressed like someone going out for a beer," said Ruggeri as it began to rain harder. "He may have been killed a few hours ago in another location," he continued, "and brought here tonight by one or more individuals. 'How?' I ask myself. Perhaps by going through the garden of the building here to the side, although I'm not convinced." As Ruggeri spoke he pointed to a building nearby. "One, because the assassin or assassins would have run the risk of being seen. Two, how many of these gardens would they have had to walk through before bringing him here? No, I'm not convinced," he said, shaking his head several times. "And if they came through the woods? As you can see, the merry-go-round is only a few yards from the woods. But why leave him in this exact spot?"
"You don't think ...?"
"It's possible ... it's possible that the killer, or killers, wanted to send a signal. We are on the far edge of a residential and commercial area. It's a somewhat unusual place to leave a dead man."
"To settle a score?" asked the subordinate.
"We can't rule it out. Maybe he was killed right here in the woods. The bypass is on the other side," he said, gesturing toward the area beyond the merry-go-round. "This poor fellow must weigh at least 175 pounds, but in my opinion that is not particularly important. A strong man could carry him on his shoulders for a few dozen yards. But if he was killed farther away, in the woods, near the bypass exit or out in the open near the bypass, by a single individual, he would have been difficult to move. I believe that it is at least a hundred yards from the merry-go-round to the woods. Too many. So here is my theory: let's say that the killer, or killers, were with him in a car. They stop, they point the gun, they approach this garden where we are, and they kill him. Then they carry him here. Or they follow the same path but shoot him near the merry-go-round. I hope that forensics manages to get us the information we need to get us on the right road: footprints, tire tracks, and so on. And I hope that the rain doesn't wash these tracks away first."
"Do you think the victim knew his killer?"
"That's a good question. Could be. Let's say they are together in a car on the bypass. The killer stops the car at the exit or at a stopping point, giving some excuse, then points the gun at the victim, leads him into the woods, shoots him, et cetera, et cetera. Or, if he doesn't know him, the killer convinces him to get in the car with him. Maybe they used the victim's car. They're driving on the bypass. The killer points the gun at the poor fellow, makes him get out, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Perhaps they are from the same country. If they knew each other, they may have agreed to meet at the bypass exit. But we could spend hours thinking up hypothetical situations without getting anywhere. We need more information. We need to know as quickly as possible who this man was, since he wasn't carrying any ID, and we need to know when he was killed. Try calling the coroner. I'll go talk to the people who live in the building. You told me those three lights have been on since you got here?" He pointed to the three-story building behind them.
"That's right. Mr. Sicotti, who discovered the body, lives on the second floor. Oh, Commissioner, you haven't seen the DA yet," said Cordara, who was again busy with his cell phone.
Ruggeri smiled faintly and answered, "Why, do you miss him? Did you get the idea of calling him?"
He had just finished the sentence when the unmistakably strident voice of Dr. Nardi, the DA, arriving from some vague area in the surrounding darkness, took him by surprise. "Commissioner Ruggeri! Are you glad the killer got away?"
Ruggeri turned and saw Nardi emerge from the darkness. He was in his forties, as tall as a 40-ounce beer can, with a few blond hairs-all on his forehead. He was breathing frantically, and he looked more excited than usual. For a second the commissioner thought he was looking at the killer.
"Good morning, Dr. Nardi," said the commissioner.
"Right! Good morning, my eye! We have a corpse, and you are standing here talking. Ah! Inspector Cordara. Actually, new Inspector Cordara-how do you like working side by side with the great Commissioner Alberto Ruggeri?" He came close enough to touch Cordara's face with his umbrella.
Cordara stiffened, and the commissioner, noticing this, got the DA's attention by waving his hands in the direction of the forensics team and saying, "Dr. Nardi, I think the dead man was murdered, so I think that ..."
The other man didn't even hear him and continued speaking to the inspector. "But you know this! You have the honor of working with the puzzle man! With the man who has solved international mysteries. Are you aware of that?"
"Listen, Dr. Nardi," said Ruggeri, slightly embarrassed.
"No! Let me finish! No! You know something, my dear Ruggeri? Now you have even more responsibility. The new inspector Cordara must learn positive, honest things from you. So avoid following your instincts. And as for you, Inspector, if you notice the commissioner slacking off, don't hesitate to tell the chief. Understand?"
The two police officers looked at him in silence as if he had three heads.
"S ... Sure," said Cordara.
The DA, who was enjoying the show, turned toward the corpse and walked confidently toward the head of forensics.
It was just after 4:30.
Ruggeri turned toward the buildings. The cold air penetrated his skin.
The rain fell on him.
Harder than before.
Chapter TwoStatues Wrapped in Silence
As he slowly approached the three-story building with the exposed brick facade, Ruggeri heard a strange, rhythmic sound coming from inside, growing louder and louder, almost as loud as the occasional thunder. He entered the lobby, which was rather brightly lit by two floodlights above the entrance. He wiped his shoes vigorously on the gray flagstone floor and used both hands to shake the freezing rainwater from his hair-the rain was really starting to get on his nerves. He then looked at the intercom system: six buttons and three corresponding illuminated nameplates. Three of these had the names of the residents printed on them; the others were blank. This meant that those apartments were still unoccupied, if they had already been assigned, or that the occupants had not seen fit to insert their names in the nameplates.
Ruggeri noticed that the lights that stayed on during the police activity in the garden corresponded with the bells where names were printed: Sicotti, who discovered the body, was on the first floor to the left; Pandiglia on the second floor on the same side; and Cuomo-Galassi on the third floor to the right. The commissioner repeatedly pressed the buttons with the blank nameplates to check whether there was anyone living in those apartments.
No one answered.
He then called Mr. Sicotti.
A rough, frightened voice answered. "Who ... who is it? Is it the police?" These words were followed by the loud rumbling sound Ruggeri had heard as he was approaching the building. The intercom amplified the sound, stunning the unfortunate commissioner, who, after he recovered from the shock, sighed, and said, "Yes. It's Commissioner Ruggeri."
But what did Sicotti have in there? A bear? A lion?
The door opened, and Ruggeri went up the dark staircase to the first-floor landing, where the trembling figure of a man waited in the dim light coming from the apartment behind him. He had a disproportionately large head. "Come in," he said, entering his apartment.
He was in his forties, of medium height, and thin. He had more hair on his face than on his head and was wearing pants that seemed to come up to his armpits. He looked cartoonish.
Ruggeri found himself in a very large room and was astounded to see that it was populated by colorful figurines of every size and shape. There were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, nativity scene figures, Smurfs, Disney and Lord of the Rings heroes, characters from every corner of the earth ...
Is this some extravagant way of decorating for Christmas? the commissioner wondered.
"Don't be alarmed, Commissioner. I make them myself by hand. They are an expression of my creativity. I sell them around the world," said Sicotti, looking around, caressing the head of a three-foot-high sculpture of Marilyn Monroe. "I bought some space under here so I would have room to work. This is just a tiny part of my production," he said with pride, ceasing his trembling for a minute.
"Nice work. My compliments," said Ruggeri sincerely. On another occasion he would have spent hours asking about how they were made and what kinds of requests he received from countries around the world. But this was not the time. "So," he began decisively, "you found the body on the merry-go-round.
At what time, and why were you there?" At that moment a dog emerged from among the figurines-a Spitz-and began to bark at the commissioner. She was definitely not the bear or lion capable of the deafening roars Ruggeri knew so well.
"Stop, Titi! Go away!" said the man. The animal obeyed and went back and hid among the statues.
"Answer my question," insisted the commissioner, taking a step toward the man.
Sicotti let out a roar from his mouth that almost shook the windows. It was followed by three more of equal intensity.
"Excuse me, Commissioner. It's a nervous cough. The doctor says I shouldn't smoke, but ..." He excused himself as he lit a cigarette. "This will be my twentieth since I saw the man on the merry-go-round." Another roar.
Ruggeri, who was starting to get irritated, pointed at him with his right hand and said, "Put out that cigarette and answer my question."
The man obeyed and made a gesture with his hand in an attempt to apologize. "I was sleeping," he said quietly, closing his eyes, "when for some reason Titi woke me up in the middle of the night. She kept barking. She's never done that before at that time of night." Except for his trembling body and some large beads of perspiration on his brow, you might have mistaken Sicotti for one of his creations.
"And what time was it?" asked Ruggeri, opening his eyes wider as if wanting to see something in the darkness of that cold rainy night.
"Uh ... around three. A minute before, a minute after." Another roar.
"And then? What happened?"
"I put on my coat and took the dog downstairs, thinking she needed to go out."
"I opened the door for her and she-who usually stays close to me-started to run toward the merry-go-round. Then she disappeared into the woods. I ran after her and saw the body. I panicked and started to call Titi. I could hear her barking. She was far away from me. I went into the woods to look for her. I don't know how long I looked for her. She kept barking, but I didn't know where she was. I was more scared than I have ever been, so I left the woods, and a little while later Titi finally returned." Sicotti opened his eyes as if awakening from a terrible nightmare.
Excerpted from The Serpent's Tracks by Maurizio Salva Copyright © 2009 by Maurizio Salva. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter One The First Tracks....................3
Chapter Two Statues Wrapped in Silence....................11
Chapter Three An Endless Night....................19
Chapter Four The Crumbling Castle....................27
Chapter Five The Old Clocks....................35
Chapter Six The President's Life....................43
Chapter Seven The Garden of Eden....................51
Chapter Eight The Commissioner's Mosaic....................59
Chapter Nine In the Serpent's Lair....................67
About the Author....................81