A woman has gone missing. Her husband, too ashamed to admit to the police that he and his wife were part of a ring of sexual adventurers that organized sadomasochistic orgies, turns instead to the Alligator. Marco Burrati enters a depraved demiworld where ferocious deviates prey upon lonely victims. But the savagery of this world is only the first surprise this investigation holds in store for the Alligator. Encountering such violence and desperation triggers memories of his own time in prison. And while the unwritten rule of ex-cons is that you must never talk about your experiences behind bars, the Alligator and his two longtime associates, Max the Memory and Beniamino Rossini, are forced to confront demons they thought long buried.
In The Master of Knots, “the reigning king of Mediterranean noir,” Massimo Carlotto, gives his readers a work of hardboiled noir fiction that is darker than ever before as he digs into the shadowy corners of human experience (The Boston Phoenix). This stunning novel sets a new high-water mark in the literary history of the Mediterranean Noir novel.
“Brooding, sexual, and connected to Italy’s socio-political climate . . . Carlotto’s tight prose makes for a quick and satisfying journey into a world absent of clear-cut morality.” —Publishers Weekly
“The author shows a sure grasp of the double lives of BDSM devotees for whom unmasking would mean calamity.” —Kirkus Reviews
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The cell phone in my shirt pocket vibrated. I continued to stare at the flickering green dot while I decided what to do. I had too much alcohol in my body to think straight, so I answered it, just to get it off my mind. The deafening music forced me out onto the street.
It was Rudy Scanferla, who worked at my club and acted like he owned it. He said some guy had turned up who was in a hurry to talk to me. I replied I would be back the next day and clicked off. It was probably a client, but right then I was in no mood to listen to other people's troubles. I was having a better time than I'd had for years.
I was in the small Tuscan town of Pontedera, at Music Asylum, a store that sold CDs, vinyl, and books, and belonged to a friend of mine, Guido Genovesi. We were celebrating, albeit rather belatedly, the birth of his daughter. The fact is I didn't pass that way very often. Four years earlier, I had walked into Music Asylum to buy a Canned Heat record and had found Guido there, chatting and sipping aperitifs with a friend of his, Giacomo Minuti. We had taken a good look at one another and that was it: we were friends. After the store closed we had gone on drinking and chatting in one bar after another, and when the very last owner had shown us the door, we had climbed into Giacomo's car and driven to Piaggio to watch the sun rise. It was a tight little district, built for the workers and employees of the famous scooter manufacturer that, for better or worse, had transformed the lives of just about everyone in the area. Giacomo had grown up there and reckoned that if you wanted to understand anything about Pontedera, here was the place to start. He was right.
I dropped in on Guido and Giacomo whenever I was within striking distance. Apart from running Music Asylum, Guido liked to write short stories. Giacomo, on the other hand, had a desk job at the council offices in Vicopisano. One afternoon, he had taken me on a tour of the town's castle and ancient jails. Prisoners there ground down the terra-cotta tiles of their cell floors, mixed the powder with water and used the resulting reddish paste to write and draw on the walls. I had been struck by the sketch of a steamship that an anarchist from Carrara, one Sirio Belletti, had made during Fascism. It had made me long to run far away.
Giacomo didn't know I had been in prison. He and Guido had never asked me anything about my past, or about how I made a living. I would have been forced to spin them some yarn about my present circumstances, but I would have told them the truth about my past: that I had spent seven years in prison, accused of terrorist offences. I wouldn't have wasted time explaining I was innocent. A pointless detail in the overall scheme of things. The night I blew my youth away, all I had done was let a guy I didn't know sleep at my flat. Then the cops had turned up, hooded and armed to the teeth. I had never seen the guy again — he was still in prison with a couple of life sentences to serve. I could have beaten the rap, but the judge insisted I recognize some persons I had never seen in my life before and who had done me no harm.
I was an ex-student and former blues singer, and prison had been hard on me. It had dried up my voice and fed a certain obsession with the truth. The kind that the blindfolded Goddess of Justice never gets to see. On my release, I had exploited my reputation as someone who could keep his mouth shut and had used the experience I had gained in prison acting as a peacemaker between the various factions of the criminal underworld to carve myself out a profession as an unlicensed detective. It had turned out to be a smart move. Lawyers who needed an entrée into the criminal underworld to get their clients out of trouble were more than happy to come to me for help. My services didn't come cheap, but I almost always managed to stick my nose in the kind of places that investigating magistrates, cops, and even ex-cop private investigators couldn't even think of approaching.
Business was brisk. I had bought myself a club just outside Padova. It was open only at night, was a good place to drink and the music was first-rate. Customers referred to it affectionately as La Cuccia, the dog basket. I had bought it because I needed a place where I could receive clients — a table kept permanently reserved in a strategic position from which I could keep an eye on the door, the bar and the stage. On account of my past, I had had to register La Cuccia in the name of Rudy Scanferla, my barman. He had been happy to accept the arrangement, enjoyed boasting about his club to the ladies, and the wages I paid him weren't bad either.
For my investigative work, I had two associates: Beniamino Rossini and Max the Memory. Rossini was a gangster of the old school. His father was from Milan but his mother was a legendary smuggler from the Basque country, and it was her footsteps he had first chosen to follow in, only later switching to holding up security vans. After a long interval spent in Italy's prisons, he had returned to cross-border trafficking, specializing in the Dalmatian coast, which he reached by high-speed motorboat.
He was rich enough not to need to take any part in my investigations, but the fact is that when we were in prison together I saved his life, and ever since he has made quite sure no harm ever comes my way. Besides, he relished any kind of adventure. It made him feel alive. He had been married, but while he was residing at the state's pleasure his wife had betrayed him with his lawyer, abandoning him without a lira. He had taken no revenge and, frankly, I had never understood why.
On his left wrist, Rossini wore a collection of gold bracelets: one for every man he had killed. When it came to violence he was a true professional, using it to administer justice in accordance with the dictates of a gangland code now quite forgotten by the younger generation. Even though he was over sixty, he remained a redoubtable, implacable enemy. Tall, slim, still muscular, elegant, with dyed but thinning hair and a Xavier Cugat moustache, Beniamino loved nightclubs and the women who frequented them. For the past few years, he had been seeing Sylvie, a French-Algerian belly dancer. It was a relationship typical of the nightclub world — lived from day to day, without any plans for the long term.
My other associate, Max the Memory, had gotten his nickname on account of his passion for filing away all kinds of useful information. He had been accused of murder and of membership in an armed gang and had been on the wanted list for years, though in fact he had never left Padova. I had got to know him during one of my investigations, when I had needed information on some major operators who wanted me dead. At that time, Max was using his woman, Marielita, a South-American street artist, to do his spying in the city so he could keep his files updated. One day she was murdered by killers working for the locally based Brenta Mafia, and I was the one who held her in my arms as blood gushed from her belly and mouth. Max had never recovered from that loss and I, for my part, had never got over my sense of guilt, because Marielita and I had once spent a night together. It should never have happened.
Anyway, Max couldn't lie low forever. They were bound to catch up with him sooner or later; they always did. Rossini and I managed to set up a trade with an anti-Mafia judge. It was the classic approach to justice: first you negotiate and then, when you've struck a deal, you go through all the rigmarole of the trial. In the end, the judge saw that it was in his interest to help Max obtain a pardon after a relatively brief stay in jail.
When Max walked out of the gates of Rome's Rebibbia prison, I was there to give him a big hug and invite him to come and live at my place, in an empty flat over the club. He had accepted, and from that day on we had been associates. His years in hiding and the loss of Marielita had left their mark. He spent a lot of time shut up in his study in front of his computer, smoking, drinking beer and grappa, and listening to good music. Prison had also bequeathed him a particular way of cooking. It was a solitary ritual, consisting of slow, measured motions that somehow enabled him to exorcise time and lick his wounds. Having filled the holes in his existence with food, tobacco, and alcohol, he was overweight and his fingers were yellow with nicotine. I affectionately called him Fat Max, but never to his face. Max was touchy.
At the end of an investigation that had brought us into head-on conflict with a gang of Colombians, Max had decided to return to political activism. He wasn't content anymore just to solve cases. Old Rossini and I had tried to talk him out of it because if he got into any trouble in the five years immediately following his release, his pardon could be revoked. The way things stood, a conviction for bill posting could get him another fifteen years. He swore he'd be careful.
He had joined the so-called movement of movements, becoming what Italian newspapers refer to as a 'no global.' He got involved in the fair-trade business, working for a Venice-based consortium of nonprofit organizations that imported goods and produce from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. There was nothing dangerous or illegal in this, but he had to take care not to lower his guard. The political climate in Italy had changed, and anybody who thought that another world was possible was increasingly viewed as an enemy of Western democracy and civilization.
Whatever my misgivings, as a friend I had to feel happy for him. His smile was less sad now and he had recovered his interest in women. I had invited him to come with me to Pontedera but he had had some meeting to go to. He'd asked me to make a detour and drop in at his favorite pasticceria, near Florence, to buy him a supply of good-quality chocolate. I would do that the following day, before returning to Padova and meeting the new client — assuming, that is, he would have the patience to wait for me.
Guido clapped me on the shoulder. 'Time for supper,' he said.
I smiled. I knew what my Tuscan friends meant by supper. We wouldn't be getting up from the table till at least two in the morning.
The client turned out to be a man in his fifties, tall, dark-haired and well-dressed. He got up to shake my hand. 'My name's Mariano Giraldi. Thanks for meeting me,' he said.
'What are you drinking?'
'Cognac, but I'm fine with this one.'
I motioned to Rudy to bring me a Calvados and lit a cigarette. While we waited, I took a closer look at Giraldi. He was nervous, clearly hadn't been sleeping, and just couldn't wait to tell me his troubles. He adjusted the collar of his green Lacoste shirt and used his right thumb and index finger to stroke his salt-and-pepper moustache. His forehead and the hair at his temples were moist with sweat, despite the air-conditioning. He didn't look like a lawyer. Or a crook, for that matter. I hoped he was being cheated on by his wife: an easy and lucrative case.
'I'm listening,' I said abruptly.
'It's a complex business.'
'They always are. Take a nice, deep breath and tell me why you waited so patiently for my return.'
He stared at me, not appreciating my manners. For all I cared, he could lift his ass straight out of that chair and go right back to wherever he came from. But it was clear he had no intention of doing that.
'Listen, I hardly know where to start and you're not helping.'
My glass of Calvados arrived at last and I stuck my nose into the balloon glass to savor its bouquet. 'Who told you to come to me?'
'An excellent reference.'
'He said you'd be able to help me.'
'Someone's disappeared — a woman.'
'Wife, daughter, lover ... Come on, don't make me beg.'
Again Giraldi stroked his moustache. 'Helena Heintze, my wife,' he said softly.
'The sixth of June, about twenty days ago.'
'Took off with her lover?'
Giraldi shook his head and his eyes filled with tears. 'She's been kidnapped.'
I rummaged in my memory but couldn't recall any recent cases of kidnapping. As a crime, it was threatened with extinction. You needed a pretty big gang and, in the end, there was always somebody who squealed. Then, when it came to sentencing, judges handed down years and years. 'It's a police matter, so why have you come to me?'
'The police don't know she's been kidnapped. I just reported her disappearance, that's all. I said she left the house and didn't come back. It was even on television.'
'Why didn't you report it?'
'Helena was kidnapped in rather particular circumstances.'
He cleared his throat. 'My wife is an S and M model,' he said, without taking a breath, no longer able to meet my gaze.
'Please go on.'
'I had gone with her to Turin, to a hotel near the airport where she had arranged to meet a client, but as soon as we walked into the room I felt this huge shock and fainted. When I came around, Helena had vanished, and I found this on the bed.'
He stuck his hand into an expensive-looking leather folder and passed me a strange object, some sort of white flower. Taking a better look, I realized it was made out of fine rope, soft and shiny as silk. An interminable series of minuscule knots fashioned to resemble a rose. I put it down on the table.
'What is it? The kidnapper's signature?'
'I don't know. There was nothing else in the room; even Helena's bag had gone. It was as if she'd never been there.'
'I'm afraid I don't understand you, Signor Giraldi. Why didn't you point the investigators in the right direction?'
Giraldi pulled a face and shook his head. 'Would you tell the police you had sadomasochistic fantasies and that your wife had been kidnapped by a client contacted on the Internet?'
'Personally, I wouldn't go to the cops under any circumstances. But, unlike you, I don't have a clean record and, even more to the point, I don't have a kidnapped wife.'
'Try to understand. Society views us as perverts, and sadomasochism is an unmentionable sin. There is no community more clandestine than ours.'
'But we've got nothing whatever to do with that scum; we are all consenting adults.'
'Sure, including the guy who took off with your wife.'
Giraldi sighed. 'The world is full of psychopaths.'
'That's true enough. But a scene where people get tied up and whipped is bound to attract some evil weirdos — people who kidnap, torture their victims long and slow, and then kill them. Which may be precisely what has happened to your wife.'
Giraldi burst into tears. 'Help me, I'm begging you! I don't know what to do.'
'Stop sniveling, man, you're attracting attention,' I snapped, signaling to Rudy to bring my guest a drink. 'Knock it straight back; it'll do you good.'
Giraldi drained the glass of cognac and heaved a deep sigh. 'I'm a coward, I know, but I just didn't have the guts to tell the truth.'
'And the cops believed your story?'
'Yes, they did. They think we had a row and that she went back home to Germany.'
'And how did they come to that conclusion?'
'They wouldn't stop bombarding me with questions, so when one of them asked me if we'd had a falling-out, I replied that we had.'
'And had you really fallen out?'
'Did you meet on the S and M scene?'
'No, we didn't. I'm a sales rep for a fabrics company. I started seeing Helena when she was trying, unsuccessfully, to launch a career as a fashion model, and I soon realized what her sexual preferences were. I was already familiar with the scene so I talked her into working as an S and M model.'
'Explain. I know nothing at all about the scene.'
'She posed as a slave for photographs.'
'Tied up and stuff like that?'
He didn't reply, but pulled out a photograph from his leather folder. Helena was a real beauty. Her long hair was gathered up in a perfect chignon and her face was in a slight shadow while her breasts were lit to perfection. A clothes peg was clamped to each nipple. Her hands and feet were bound by strips of leather to a wooden structure that vaguely resembled a St. Andrew's cross.
'Right. I've got it. She's an S and M hooker.'
'No, you're wrong,' Giraldi said urgently, struggling to suppress his anger. 'Helena never had sex with her clients. Only photos.'
I pointed to the photograph with my index finger. 'But those pegs must hurt like hell.'
'She enjoys it.'
I took a closer look and saw he was right. The woman's expression showed neither pain nor disgust. 'So it's a genuine vocation.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Master of Knots"
Copyright © 2014 Edizioni E/O.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Massimo Carlotto has a history as riveting as any novel."—Chicago Tribune
“Carlotto is the reigning king of Mediterranean noir.”—The Boston Phoenix
“The best living Italian crime writer.”— Il Manifesto