The Drowning River

A Mystery in Florence

Sandro Cellini (Volume 1)

Christobel Kent

Minotaur Books

Chapter One
IT TOOK FOUR DAYS for the knock at the door. Four long, quiet days in the fading light of an unseasonably mild November, and plenty of time for Sandro to decide whether he liked the two rooms Luisa had found for him to use as an office, if not to make up his mind about what he was doing there in the first place.
It had not occurred to Sandro that he’d be in at the deep end with the first job. He thought he might get eased in gently but, then again, the world doesn’t work like that. It was a lesson he should have learned long ago, that life doesn’t owe you a warning.
The rooms Luisa had found were on the second floor, square and light and plain in a peaceful street off the Piazza Tasso in San Frediano. The street was the Via del Leone, with a small glassed-in shrine to the Madonna on the corner and at least four candles burning, the sign of a God-fearing neighbourhood, or a superstitious one, depending on how you looked at it. Sandro Cellini stood somewhere between the two, born Catholic, naturally enough, but a rationalist by thirty years of police training. He was too ambivalent as a result to go to Mass more than a couple of times a year, Easter and baptisms, but he liked the shrine, anyhow. And where there was God, there were old ladies. When he had been in the police force – a phrase that still knocked him back – Sandro had found pious elderly women always ready to provide detailed testimony as well as to light candles for divine intervention.
The buildings of the Via del Leone were humble, no more than three storeys, and as a consequence the street itself was sunnier, quieter than his home turf, the acoustics less grating on the ear when the first of the morning motorini whined down it on their way to the centre. Born and bred north of the river in Santa Croce among noisy, narrow streets the sun never found, as he stood at the window that looked into the street on his first day, Sandro didn’t know if he’d ever get used to it.
It was Florence, undeniably it was, but it wasn’t the city he’d woken up in every morning for fifty-eight years, where only a shard of blue sky was visible and the street outside vibrated with din from seven in the morning. A cacophonous opera made up of the crash of bins being emptied, the squeak of the buses’ air brakes, the rumble of taxis, the first tourist group of the morning stopping on the corner to be informed loudly in Spanish or German or Japanese of where Dante had been born and Galileo buried.
Looking down, Sandro saw that it might be quiet, but it wasn’t deserted after all. He watched as an old woman led her small, overcoated dog to the kerb so it could crap on someone’s front tyre; soon enough, he thought, he’d know whose car that was and whether he cared or not. She was carrying a bedraggled bunch of chrysanthemums, heading for the cemetery, no doubt. Coming the other way, he saw a pretty girl; a student maybe, with long hair, long legs in dark jeans, stupidly huge studded and tasselled handbag. She was running, in a hurry; almost opposite the house she sidestepped the old lady and her flowers and her dog, and, as if she knew he was up there, the girl tilted her head and was looking back at Sandro. Her eyes slid over him and, ashamed, he ducked away. He wasn’t in this to eyeball passers-by, was he?
Sandro retreated to his desk. It had been found for him, like the flat, like every other piece of furniture from the grey filing cabinet to the elderly but respectable computer, by Luisa. In the silence he reflected that the lack of tourist groups, at least, was a mercy. A fondness for the sound of a Vespa or buses’ brakes might be his own private perversion, but he’d never learned to love the guided tours. Luisa had pointed out that he’d better start learning to love the tourists, because they might turn out to be his bread and butter, just like they were hers.
‘I’m going to start tomorrow,’ he’d announced when she got home from the shop the previous night. It hadn’t gone down well.
‘Ognissanti?’ Luisa said with flat dismay. ‘Really?’ She stood in the kitchen with her coat still on, smelling of woodsmoke from the street. Ognissanti was All Saints’ Day, the first of November, followed by All Souls’ the day after. Two days when all the leaves fall at once, and flowers are laid on the graves of loved ones. Tradition was, Ognissanti should be a day for quiet reflection, and the consideration of mortality.
‘Why not?’ Sandro said, defensively. ‘They called this afternoon to say the phone line’s been installed. I’ve had enough of hanging around.’
But he knew why not. Religion, habit, duty to the dead, not to mention that it might be obscurely inauspicious to start halfway through a week. And although Luisa was no more religious than he was, the tug of familial duty was stronger; her mother more recently dead. She had to get up early to take flowers to her mother’s grave out in Scandicci, before heading in to the city.
‘You’ll be at work yourself, after all,’ Sandro said.
Like many other religious days, the feast’s status as a public holiday was being eroded, particularly in the big cities with their wealthy, godless visitors, and Luisa’s employer, Frollini, had given in years back. They did good business in November, with the stock room crammed to overflowing and the windows full of sheepskins and velvet and party dresses. Luisa didn’t like it, but it was the new Italy.
‘It seems like bad luck,’ she said uneasily.
‘I don’t want to put it off any longer,’ said Sandro with finality, and she could see that that, at least, was true.
Grumbling, she had got up even earlier than usual to cook for him.
‘Your first day, you’ll take something hot to eat,’ she said, when he wandered into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, to remonstrate with her. The pristine lilies she had bought the night before for her mother stood in the sink.
She’d given him baccalà – salt cod stewed with tomatoes – and when Sandro prised open the foil dish six hours later at his new desk it was still just warm; but then again, it was barely midday. He had been on the job three hours, and had done nothing but ogle a girl through the window and open a file on the computer for his accounts, before closing it again. Expenses to date, five thousand euro, give or take. Income, zero.
Sandro devoured the rich salty stew in five mouthfuls, suddenly starving. He spilled a little of the sauce on his desktop and although he rubbed at it immediately, cursing, it left a tiny orange stain. A good start, he thought to himself. What will the clients think, supposing any ever materialize? He felt ready to hurl something at the wall; what a slob. That night he told Luisa he’d maybe experiment with the local bar for lunch; she eyed him warily.
‘Gone off my cooking?’ He shook his head. ‘As if,’ he said. ‘Just – well. I need to get to know the neighbourhood.’ She nodded, deciding not to be offended. He didn’t tell her the baccala incident had made him feel like a small boy on the first day at school, on a knife edge of misery.
‘How was the visit?’ he said. ‘The cemetery?’
She was pale; he remembered she had been up since six, and he cursed himself for letting her work so hard. He could have just said, I’ll start tomorrow, couldn’t he?
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘It was good.’ She smiled and he could see that for all her pallor and weariness, it had made her happy. For Luisa a visit to the cemetery always kindled something; she still spoke to her mother, standing at the grave, once she had spent twenty minutes arranging the lilies. It was another example of her mysterious superiority, that Luisa was not afraid of grief.
Sandro had been nineteen when his mother died – she had had cancer, though Sandro never knew where – and just coming to the end of his military service. He came back for the funeral in his uniform, unable to cry. His father went to his own grave a year later; they had been hard-working country people with no time for the expression of emotion, and although he’d been no more than sixty the loss had simply been too much for him to bear. Sandro had found himself stunned into silence by their abrupt absence.
It was suddenly too late to ask them anything; within six months he had met Luisa, and asked her to marry him. At the time it had seemed like the only way to survive; within five years he realized that he couldn’t remember his father’s face without taking up the framed photograph he kept in a drawer, and staring hard at it. They were in his head somewhere, the pair of them hand in hand in old-fashioned clothes, but he did not want to think about them; he didn’t have Luisa’s trick of taking sadness by the hand and making it a friend.
‘I’m a very lucky man,’ he said to her back as she stirred something on the stove. ‘Very lucky.’
One of the things Sandro turned over in his mind as he sat there on day two – All Souls’, a little cloudier than day one, the November light a little thinner and paler – was this alteration in his relationship with Luisa. Thirty years married – or was it thirty-one? – and suddenly Luisa was in charge. While he’d been in the force they’d run along separate tracks, two blindsided locomotives, each oblivious to the other’s direction. With pain he thought of the big police station out at Porta al Prato on the busy viale. Standing guard at the north-eastern approach to the city, the warm, busy corridors, the long, shuttered windows, the camaraderie. Misguided nostalgia, he reminded himself; where was the camaraderie now?
That was unfair, clearly it was. He still saw his old comrades now and again in the city; they’d nod and exchange a word in the street; he thought they’d stand him a coffee if he ever found himself back in the bar on the viale they used to frequent. But what conversation would they have? ‘Sorry, mate’? The murky old Caffe Tramvai – there’d been trams running past the Porta al Prato once, before Sandro was born – with its Formica tables and sixties décor, and the best trippa alla fiorentina in the city. He thought of those lunch-breaks now and again, when his guard was down; they would all crowd in there at twelve-thirty and stand eating the ragout out of little bowls, steaming, sweet, garlic and tomatoes and tender fragments of meat. But that friendly shared coffee was never going to happen, was it? Sandro had avoided the place like the plague since the day of his departure on a cold, dark January day nearly two years ago.
Sandro was no longer a police officer. At least, he considered gloomily, he had not been discharged, dishonourably or otherwise; at least he had been allowed early retirement. It had been more than a face-saver; it had meant he could work, because the opportunities for a disgraced policeman were limited. If there’d been any sympathy for his offence among his colleagues, Sandro didn’t seek it out; he didn’t want to be forgiven. The offence of relaying confidential information to the father of an abducted child.
The child’s disappearance had come at a bad time; if you believed in astrology, at some disastrous conjunction of planets, it had always been inevitable that further tragedy could only follow from it. It had been a long time ago, with Luisa the wrong side of forty, and the possibility that they would never have children of their own was turning to stone-dead certainty for both of them. The girl – nine years old – had disappeared from a crowded pool, her body found at a bend in a river in the Apennines a week later, caught in reeds.
No arrest had been made, though they’d had their suspect all right, and Sandro had kept in touch with the child’s father. Why? It was obvious why, people sometimes said to him, it was the human impulse, it was out of sympathy, but Sandro had offered no excuses at the disciplinary hearing; he had remained silent when they were asked of him. He had merely admitted that he had, yes, kept the bereaved, the now childless father, informed; had supplied him eventually with the name and whereabouts of the chief suspect in his daughter’s murder, with every scrap of information. And when, fifteen years later, the suspect – against whom no charges had ever been brought – was found murdered, the whole thing unravelled. Sandro had known immediately that he was responsible for the paedophile’s death, whoever had in fact held the knife against his throat.
The dead man had been guilty, they knew that now, but it had still been wrong. One little breach in the rule of law and the whole thing comes apart at frightening speed; the murderer is murdered, and one of his victims ends up with blood on her own hands. And once you have lied to a man who trusts you, to your partner of more than a decade, you cannot be sure he will ever trust you again.
And that was how Sandro came to find himself adrift. But thirty years in the police leave their mark; it was too late for him to become anything else.
Pietro was still a friend, of course, his partner of thirteen years and as close to a marriage as you can get. Pietro still called at the apartment every other Thursday, religiously, to haul Sandro out for a drink, to talk about football and Fiorentina’s death plunge down through the divisions, a grumble about the new commissario seconded from Turin, nothing too close to the bone. They didn’t talk about Sandro’s disgrace, and though Sandro felt the warmth of Pietro’s sympathy he shied away from voicing his gratitude; it wasn’t the relationship he wanted.
Thirteen years in the same grubby fug of their allotted police vehicle, you get to know the smell of another man’s socks, his aftershave, what he eats for breakfast. How he takes his coffee. Caffè alto, for Pietro, down in one then another on its tail, to kickstart the day; there are some questions that don’t need asking, after thirteen years. Sometimes now, taking his coffee alone, Sandro had to close his eyes so as not to wish it all back again.
Perhaps Luisa had always been in charge. Sitting in the thin sunlight, eyes closed, Sandro felt curiously comforted as he mused on that possibility. Those long years of quiet unhappiness together during which each had shouldered his own burden – the lack of children, the ugliness of daily police work, the shrinking of expectations – Luisa had been in charge all along. Biding her time for the moment when her superior skills would be called for.
Over those four days in the Via del Leone he did come to the conclusion that Luisa knew what she was doing, all right. He’d come with her to see the place, and he hadn’t seen its potential; if truth be told, he’d been downcast by it. Luisa had found out, through the usual mysterious means, that it was about to come on the market, a second-floor walk-up, two rooms and a tiny kitchen inhabited by an exhausted-looking elderly couple and their disabled daughter, who were about to be rehoused in ‘more suitable’ accommodation. That should have given him the hint; public housing was hard to come by, and the comune didn’t step in lightly. The disabled daughter turned out to be middle-aged, brain-damaged and quadriplegic since birth, parked in a tiny kitchen in a wheelchair. The apartment had no bathroom, a fact that did not dawn on Sandro until they left.
‘My God,’ he’d said in the street below, thinking of all those years carrying their helpless child up and down the stairs, while she turned into a middle-aged woman. Luisa had squeezed his hand. ‘It’s a sad place,’ she said. ‘I think that’s why they haven’t been able to find a tenant.’
That and the builder’s yard below the window, currently full of orange plastic tubing, maybe. But there was a sliver of a view of the back of Santa Maria dell’Carmine, if you were disposed to concentrate on that instead, on the frescoes inside that Sandro hadn’t seen since he was a boy, the Adam and Eve, Eve with her hand up to her mouth. These things all settled in his mind in those idle hours. He wondered where they were now, that couple and their ageing daughter, and whether they missed their view. Nonsense, Luisa would say briskly. Modern bathroom, ground-floor access, lifts and bars and all sorts after forty years hauling the grown child up two flights of stairs? Nonsense. it’ll make a good office, and they’re better off where they are.
Day two, just before lunch, Sandro found himself looking down into the street again; he saw the woman with her dog, and realized he was watching for the girl. Out of police habit, getting the lie of the land, or because she’d been pretty? He turned tail, unable to give himself the benefit of the doubt. She had been pretty.
Safely at the back of the building Sandro had spread his copy of La Nazione out on his desk and went through it as though that was his job, reading every story in the paper. He stared at the big stories first, national news. Garbage collection in Naples, dioxins leaching into the food chain from toxic waste. A new book out on the Camorra, and a piece about Calabrian gangsters buying up property in Tuscany. His stomach felt sour and leaden; my country, he thought, staring at the page; there’d been a time when it had been his business. Out at Porta al Prato, buckling on his holster, slapping the peaked cap on his head, jostling out through the door with Pietro, they’d laughed bitterly at their dismal clean-up rate, at all the shit still out there waiting for them, but it hadn’t felt like this.
He worked his way down to local stuff: illegals employed on building the extension to the Uffizi; a hit and run on the viale, involving a child. A doctor found to be a member of a satanic cult drowned in Lake Trasimeno. Sandro worked his way right through to the end before he closed the paper, impotent.
In the afternoon Sandro went out into the street, so as to have something to tell Luisa when he got home. The food in the nearest bar was lousy; a stale roll and some dried-up ham, and the floor was dirty. It had turned chilly, too; after a brisk turn down to the Piazza Tasso and back – on the corner seven candles had been lit for the Virgin this afternoon; Sandro resolved to keep a proper eye out one day for the devout, his future informers – he hurried back to the flat, where the ancient radiators were clanking loudly to keep pace with the cold.
Climbing the draughty stairs Sandro had tried to imagine the place in July, when San Frediano, built for the street sweepers and humbler artisans, the carpenters and stonemasons, had the reputation for being a sun-bleached desert, without high stone facades and deep eaves to protect its inhabitants from the heat of the sun. Did people need private detectives in July?
And, as Sandro found himself reminded once again that that was what he was now, a private detective, he had to fight the urge to put his face in his hands, and groan.
Excerpted from The Drowning River by Christobel Kent.
Copyright © 2009 by Christobel Kent.
Published in 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.