After decades as a police detective in his Northern Italian hometown on the River Po, Commissario Piero Trotti has retired. But retirement brings him no respite. An old friend calls him to Siena to give him urgent news: a notorious hit man has returned to Italy to kill Trotti. The former inspector isn’t surprised to learn of the vendetta against him; Trotti has plenty of skeletons in his closet. His mistaken accusations and failed gambles have cost innocent lives in the course of his investigations. Though Trotti carries the burden of these deaths with him each day, now someone else has appeared to enact his own, long-awaited retribution.
Traveling across Italy to escape his pursuer, Trotti revisits his own past and searches for clues to the cold-case murder of Valerio Gracchi, a leftist radical who became a national media sensation. But even the right answers may not save Trotti and his loved ones.
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Chapter 1: Florence
The city of Florence was packed with tourists, with Germans and French and Japanese, talking loudly and flaunting their currencies.
Trotti cursed under his breath. It was another week to Easter, and yet every reasonably priced hotel in the city was full. There had been no reason to expect this sudden drop in the temperature; nor had Trotti been expecting the main railway station to close for the night. Foolishly, he had lingered in a restaurant and now he was shivering in the street. He did not even have a coat. Half past two and the train for Empoli would not leave for another couple of hours. There was no escape from the cold, and Trotti was cursing his own stupidity when he noticed the African girl. She had been standing there for some time, but he had assumed she was just another whore. He looked at her from behind; the overhead neon highlighted her hair and for a moment Trotti thought it was Eva. There was a lurch in his belly, but as the girl moved towards the main entrance of the Stazione Santa Maria Novella, Piero Trotti realized she was a lot younger than the prostitute from Uruguay.
A couple of barefoot children were begging in front of a mobile bar. The bar—probably the only place open in Florence at half past three in the morning—was selling hot drinks on the far side of the road. Trotti scraped money from the bottom of his flimsy pocket and bought two cups of steaming chocolate. He gave the change to one of the children.
He went back across the road.
“For you, signorina.”
She turned and the plucked eyebrows rose in surprise.
“Hot chocolate to warm you against this chill,” Trotti smiled.
Her lips were almost white in the feeble glow of the station lights. “My mother told me not to take presents from strangers.”
“Just a retired policeman.”
“Men like you she warned me about.” Without taking her eyes from his, she put the styrofoam to her lips and drank.
She must have been in her early twenties. The girl was almost as tall as Trotti, and the appearance of height was accentuated by curly hair, combed outwards. A blue ribbon ran through the curls and was tied into a knot above her neck. She held the cup between her hands—hands that trembled.
She did not have any luggage other than a small bag at her feet and the clothes she was wearing—cotton skirt, blue tights, a sweater and a denim jacket.
“You missed your train?”
Her scuffed tennis shoes were no protection against the Siberian cold. “Perhaps.”
“You missed it or you didn’t?”
The eyes appraised him from behind the rim of the paper cup. Widely-set brown eyes; Trotti realized why she reminded him of Eva. He felt the pinch of nostalgia.
She blew across the surface of her drink before taking another sip. “I have nowhere to sleep.”
“You’re not Italian, signorina?”
“Just one of my problems,” the girl said in a lilting accent, and then she started to cry.
Chapter 2: Empoli
They had to change trains.
At Empoli, side by side, they sat in an empty waiting room and before long, the girl’s head slumped onto his shoulder. Trotti felt the rasp of the girl’s thick hair against his cheek and he could smell its warmth.
He closed his eyes and recalled the first meeting with Eva in Milan. A long time ago, before the beating they gave her and her hurried, frightened departure for Uruguay.
He dozed off; the local train pulled into the station and the girl woke Trotti with a sharp jab of her elbow. Grabbing his arm and her bag, she pulled him out into the feeble light of morning and bustled him onto the impatient train, an old, rust-colored Littorina.
After the stuffy coziness of the waiting room, the compartment was cold and the train empty. They collapsed onto upholstery that smelled of cigarette smoke and sweat. The locomotive gave a melancholy hoot to the grey sky and the outskirts of Empoli were soon falling behind them.
They were both too weary to talk, but Trotti was no longer tired enough to sleep. He stared through the window at the rolling countryside of Tuscany, grey-green beneath the leaden sky.
It was quite unlike the flat expanses of Lombardy. Tuscany could have been a different country; it was a different world.
“You’re not from Florence?” she asked, as if reading his thoughts. One eye was closed, one eye was looking at him.
“Padania.” He laughed.
“I’m from the North.”
After leaving Bari in the mid-seventies, Trotti had traveled South on only three occasions, and never for pleasure. It was not that Piero Trotti disliked central Italy or the South—unlike the leghista Ubertini in Scientifica, who maintained that you needed a pith helmet and a rifle to venture anywhere south of the Po.
Florence, Rome and Palermo were as much a part of the republic as Milan and Bergamo, Crema and Lodi. It was just that Trotti had no call to go there. He had always been happy where he was, in the city where he belonged, with its winter fogs and with its mosquitoes and its airless heat during the summer.
The softness of the Tuscan hills, even on a freezing April morning, was quite alien to him.
The girl sat before him and soon the second eye closed again as she dropped off.
Surreptitiously, Trotti studied the graceful hands and the long fingers where they loosely clasped the cloth bag. He smiled to himself.
Her name was Wilma Barclay and, speaking in idiomatic Italian, she had told him that she was from America. She was twenty-one—the same age as Pioppi when his daughter had decided she no longer wanted to eat.
No young woman with all the challenges of life before her, American or otherwise, deserved to be left to fend for herself on a freezing night outside Florence SMN.
The train emitted its mournful hoot, a hoot made more mournful by the first snowflakes that battered against the window.
The 6:45 local from Empoli pulled into Siena.
Chapter 3: Pétain
“General Spadano’s waiting for you.”
With a remote, patrician smile, the uniformed officer leaned forward and opened the door. “Kindly enter,” he said in an educated voice.
Although a policeman himself for nearly forty years, Trotti still imagined that most flatfeet were called Quagliarulo or Scognamiglio and spoke in Neapolitan or Sicilian. Surprised, Trotti thanked the man and obediently did as he was told, entering the office softly, almost on tiptoe, almost intimidated.
He had never seen anything like it; or at least, Piero Trotti had never seen a police room that was Renaissance in style, with vaulted arches and walls covered in delicate frescoes.
“So there you are.” Spadano stood up from behind a desk covered with various telephones.
The place smelled of cigars and Atkinson eau de cologne.
Trotti nodded, “You’re looking fit.”
“Not so bad yourself,” Spadano replied. “Except for the paunch and the extra ten kilos you’re carrying.”
Physically, Spadano was small, and looked even smaller behind the large black desk. He was not wearing a uniform but a dark linen suit, a white shirt and a blue tie. The oblique light from the window had caught his grey eyes. His hair was cut very short and brushed backwards; it was snow-white. “Glad you could make it to Siena, Piero.”
“Thanks for the ride from the station.”
“I hear you’re accompanied.”
“An American girl I met shivering to death outside Firenze SMN at three in the morning.”
“What were you doing outside Santa Maria at three in the morning?”
“You wouldn’t want to know.”
“Always were a ladies’ man. Good to see you haven’t changed.”
“You have.” Trotti gestured towards the engraved name plate on the desk, “I thought you’d retired years ago, Spadano. You’re older than me.”
“Perhaps I was.” The Carabiniere took a packet of cigars from his jacket and set it on the desk. “Still a few more years before I collect my pension. One of the advantages of rank.”
“Last I heard of you, you were in Sardinia fighting bandits.”
“In Calabria fighting bandits.”
“What brought you to Siena?”
Spadano grinned and gestured to the walls of the office, the painted ceiling, the computers. “Tutela del patrimonio artistico.”
“You’re a peasant like me, Spadano. What would you know about art?”
“I can’t afford to retire yet. I’ve got a young family to bring up.”
There came a muffled shout from beyond the closed window, outside in the medieval city. “I can remember your words, Spadano, as if it were yesterday: ‘One thing’s certain—I’m not going to find a wife in the Sopramonte. Just sheep, wind and rain—and foul-smelling Sardinian peasants and murderers.’”
“Thanks to you, Piero, I met Signora Bianchini in your foggy northern city.”
“How does a general of Carabinieri find the time to have a young wife and a family?”
There was the soft hum of a printing machine in a far corner. Spadano looked thoughtfully at his old friend.
“If you really want something in this life, you work for it.” Spadano extended his hand in welcome. “Good to see you again, Piero Trotti.”
As the two men shook hands, simultaneously they both seemed to change their minds and hugged each other. “As prickly and irascible as ever. Don’t tell me you’ve given up your boiled sweets.”
Trotti took a step back and placed a Vichy pastille in his mouth. He nodded towards an overflowing ashtray, “Pity Signora Spadano hasn’t weaned you of those foul Toscani.”
The general laughed. “Contraband Toscani from Scranton, Pennsylvania.” He gestured to a low divan for Trotti to sit down, then, pulling at the crumpled creases of his trousers, Spadano lowered himself into the armchair opposite. “Coffee?”
A muscular body and a thick neck. Hair that showed no sign of thinning. For a man of well over sixty-five, Spadano had aged gracefully.
“I’m trying to give up coffee. The doctor said it was bad for my blood pressure.”
“But not the sweets?”
“My dentist told me to give up sweets years ago.” Trotti clicked the sweet truculently against his teeth. “My last remaining vice.”
“You had so many. Now tell me about the Signora Scola you’re supposed to marry.”
“Always thought you’d return to Sicily, Spadano.”
“So did I.” The general nodded as he opened the pack of cigars, “The day the television showed the blown-up Croma at Capaci, my wife stopped eating. Virtually stopped talking to me. Said she’d never accompany me, said if I took a job in Sicily, she’d return to her little town in Lombardy with Chicco. Wasn’t going to have her husband and her child murdered by the Mafia. Sicily didn’t need another Falcone or Borsellino.”
A proud nod towards a photograph on the desktop. “So here I am in Tuscany, looking after our cultural heritage.”
“Done very well for yourself.”
“My son doesn’t get to see the land of his grandparents.”
Spadano looked round at the office, at the Byzantine murals, red and gold, at the modern furniture. At the four telephones, at the desk and at the slim, portable computer. “Just sitting things out, Piero. Sitting things out until I can retire and take my wife and child home—home to Sicily, where I belong. I don’t have to tell you I’m not really interested in chasing up grave-robbers and antique dealers. With age, as you’ve no doubt remarked yourself, a man’s ideals can alter.”
“Never aware you had any ideals, Spadano.”
“You and I, Piero, we thought we were going to change the world. Instead, the world’s changed us.”
“The insignia and the pips of the Carabinieri tattooed into your flesh?”
“I never gave marriage a second thought. Not once in thirty years. As you say, the insignia of the Carabinieri were tattooed into my flesh—into my soul.” Spadano shook his head as he fumbled with a cigar, “I now have a family of my own. My wife and my son’s future’s all I care about—as I enter the foothills of old age.”
“Your part of the world, isn’t it?”
“To tell me about your happy family life and your retirement plans—is that why you contacted me?”
“I thought you’d like to see me, Piero.”
“Perhaps you thought I’d enjoy this weather, too?”
Spadano glanced briefly through the window. He turned to face Trotti. “Something I need to tell you.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
Spadano put the unlit cigar to his mouth, “Somebody wants to kill you, and I thought you should be told.” Spadano added blandly, “A professional killer, Piero.”