Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (6 page)

BOOK: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
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Cassata della nonna

                    
Formaggi e profumi della Sicilia

Meanwhile, two liveried Moroccans tirelessly bore in trays, terrines and dishes as if producing them from some subterranean, inexhaustible cornucopia of delicacies. Involuntarily reminded of the effort it cost her to slave over a simple leg of roast pork, Poldi was filled with admiration for Carmela, who had cooked this all yet looked as fresh as a spray of orange blossom at dawn.

Twelve guests, as already mentioned, but food for thirty. The wine, however, sufficed for only four. This aroused a certain measure of dissatisfaction in my aunt, though she did find it amusing when four-legged Hölderlin stuck his head in Russo's crotch and refused to budge. Russo didn't budge either.

“I've had Dobermanns for fifty years,” Mimì whispered to Poldi, “and I named each of them Hölderlin.”

“A form of immortality in itself,” she said, before she could stop herself.

Valérie nearly choked.

Mimì clapped his hands in delight. “Bravo, Donna Isolde. At last a kindred spirit who can see into the depths of my heart.”

Hölderlin-wise, this dispelled the last of Mimì's modesty and restraint.
Forza
Hölderlin. Hölderlin ruled the waves. Leaning over Poldi like a junk in a gale, Mimì spent the whole evening raving to her about his idol from Tübingen, recited his hymns, patriotic poems and
Hyperion
, and expatiated on the poet's insanity (which Mimì disputed), his many years of seclusion in a tower, and the Masonic conspiracy that lay (in Mimì's view) at the root of this.

“I can prove, Donna Isolde, that Hölderlin's poems reveal arcane knowledge of great antiquity. Encoded, of course. Hölderlin was not only the greatest German poet, but also a cryptological genius. I'm on the verge of deciphering his code and thus of revealing a truth that will shake the world to its foundations.”

“Is there any more wine anywhere?” Poldi cried out in despair, wondering what the hell she was doing there. Mimì continued to blather incessantly. The other guests looked relieved to be able to concentrate entirely on their dinner. Beside her, Valérie merely picked at her food for form's sake and did her best to ignore Russo, who spent the whole time eyeing her across the table. Unable to get properly drunk on such a paucity of wine, Poldi couldn't help wondering what, if anything, had gone on between them. Patanè, who never took his eyes off Russo for a moment, munched, chewed, grunted, sighed and belched without a break, spoke to nobody else, and took not the slightest trouble to feign polite interest in the other guests.

When inebriation simply refused to supervene for lack of wine, my aunt became first sentimental and then melancholy. A familiar shadow descended on her soul like a heavy velvet curtain beneath which one could sleep or suffocate. Preferably both. Poldi thought of her Peppe, of John, of the house in Tanzania, of all the people, things and hopes she had lost. Of the countless times she had stuck in her oar and ruined everything. She thought of Valentino, who was very probably in bed with some girl, and it seemed to her that today had been nothing but a bloody awful, shitty waste of time. She heard Mimì's voice beside her. He had risen to his feet and was declaiming a Hölderlin poem, first in German and then in his own Italian translation. It ended: “
Nought am I now, my love of life is gone
.”

The words pierced Poldi to the core. Direct hit; sunk. She felt Valérie's hand on her arm.

“Poldi? Everything all right?”

“Of course. Why shouldn't it be?”

“You're crying.”

“No I'm not.”

“You most certainly are. You're trembling.”

Poldi noticed only then that everyone was staring at her and that Valérie was holding out a handkerchief.

“Thanks,” she sniffed. She blew her nose and promptly felt a trifle better. She turned to Valérie. “Would you mind driving me home, please?”

So much for that evening. In order to draw a line under it, Poldi spent the whole of the following day lying in her darkened bedroom in the Via Baronessa with a bottle of vodka, drinking and wallowing in self-pity. She heard children romping around and neighbours chatting, heard laughter and squabbles, the blatting of Vespas and the babble of quiz shows, heard the sea murmur and the day expire with a long, exhausted sigh. She didn't go out, didn't answer the door, didn't answer the phone; she just drank, hoping that her liver and heart would soon give out and finally shut up shop.

But they didn't. They simply soldiered on. They knew better.

Having boozed for a day and a night, my Auntie Poldi was promptly afflicted with insomnia because her liver was working overtime to metabolize all the alcohol. Thanks to that and a full bladder, she was roused between three and four in the morning by a recurrence of thirst, which assailed her like an angry, neglected lover. Poldi would normally have taken half a diazepam and slept till noon, but this morning she didn't. She'd been woken by a dream accompanied by an ugly metallic noise, but she couldn't remember what it was about, only that a heavy, immovable shadow had been resting on her chest. Restlessly, she tossed and turned in her bed but drank only water and took two aspirin, then got up shakily and made herself some coffee. She ate two slices of toast, watered the plants in the courtyard, and ate another two slices of toast. The trembling and the aftermath of the nightmare were slow to subside. At around five, in the first pale light of dawn, she couldn't stand it any longer. She got dressed and drove to Praiola to toss a pretty pebble into the sea in memory of Peppe and, perhaps, to have a little dip in the light of the rising sun.

Her plan came to nothing.

She caught sight of the figure as soon as she parked the car. Seemingly poured out like liquid on the rounded volcanic rocks, it was just a shadow in the half-light, just a dark patch forgotten by the sea, like jetsam. Not a sound to be heard but the buzzing of flies and the splash of wavelets on the shore as if the sea itself were not yet properly awake. Somehow, Poldi already guessed what had woken her.

And what she would very soon see.

Cautiously but resolutely, she made her way over the big, rounded boulders and approached the figure on the beach as if loath to wake its owner. He was so young, after all, and young men need plenty of sleep.

“Valentino?” Her voice sounded hoarse, like the mewing of a kitten.

Valentino was lying stretched out on his back. Poldi recognized him at once by the
trinacria
tattooed on his left forearm, the Sicilian symbol consisting of a three-legged Gorgon's head. She wouldn't, however, have been able to recognize him by his handsome Arabo-Norman face because someone had blown that away at short range with a lupara, a sawn-off shotgun. When Poldi came nearer a cloud of flies rose from the remains of his head.

With a groan, she knelt down beside him. Just crouched beside the corpse, whimpering softly as if that age-old song of grief could bring him back to life. The big pebbles hurt her knees, but she scarcely felt the pain. She grasped his left hand, which was as cold and hard and dry as the stones on the beach.

“Oh, Valentino, why did you never say a word?”

She fondled his cold hand and stared at the sea and the rising sun, to avoid having to look at him. It wasn't her first dead body and she wasn't easily shocked, but the sight of that mangled face affected her deeply. She turned her head away and tried to concentrate on his hand, on his dirty fingernails and the familiar tattoo.

At length, however, she forced herself to look.

“That was when I made Valentino a promise,” she told me later. “An almost automatic process was at work, that's why. It was genetically conditioned.”

“You mean a kind of… criminalistic hereditary reflex?” I asked, remembering the psychology course I'd dropped out of.

“Bullshit. It was the hunting instinct.” She looked at me. “Either you've got it or you haven't.”

Valentino's face looked really awful. The eyes, nose and mouth were scarcely distinguishable – just a gory mush of shredded flesh and bone fragments – but Poldi took a careful look in spite of the flies and her urge to vomit. The blood had already congealed. She carefully raised the head a little, then gently laid it down again. After hesitating for a moment – she drew a deep breath – Poldi bravely felt in his trouser pockets. The left-hand pocket yielded nothing but some reddish grains of sand, but in the other she found a few coins and, among them, a little piece of mosaic like the one she had purloined from his bedroom: a glazed, cobalt-blue ceramic fragment the size of a cent. After a moment's thought she pocketed the tessera and stuffed the small change back in Valentino's trouser pocket. She didn't find his mobile phone.

Poldi knew it was time to call the police, but first she examined the immediate vicinity of the corpse. Not until the sun had almost climbed above the skyline did she return on trembling legs to the car, where she'd left her mobile, and dial 112.

Which meant that she had misdialled in her agitated state of mind, because instead of calling the Polizia di Stato, who answer to 113 and are responsible for homicide, she had called the Carabinieri, who are only semi-responsible for such cases.

The Italian state maintains a Babylonian multiplicity of police forces: Polizia di Stato, Carabinieri, Guardia di Finanza, Polizia Penitenziaria, Corpo Forestale dello Stato, Guardia Costiera, Polizia Municipale (Poldi's
Vigili Urbani
), the Presidential Corazzieri, Polizia Provinciale, and Polizia Locale. Plus various special units dedicated to combating terrorism and the Mafia and protecting the state, nearly all of them subordinate to different ministries. They almost defy comprehension – except, of course, by Poldi with her lifelong expert knowledge of uniformed masculinity.

The Carabinieri, or Italian gendarmerie, tend to operate more in rural districts and are nationally reputed to be a catch-all for village idiots and knuckleheads in general. This may be to do with their full dress uniform, which would grace an operetta with its silver epaulettes, scarlet-lined cape and monstrous bicorn hat, the
lucerna
. The Carabinieri will accept anyone, so it's said, which is why they are the favourite butt of schoolboy jokes. One classic example: why do carabinieri always patrol in threes? Well, one can read, one can write, and the third is to keep an eye on that pair of dangerous intellectuals. An absolute scream, no? Or this one: two carabinieri are on guard in the street. One says, “Look, a dead seagull.” The other looks up at the sky and says, “Where?”

But this is all malicious nonsense, of course, because the Italian police are no less professional than those of any other country.

It should be pointed out that the Carabinieri are in competition with the Polizia di Stato. Actually, it's a nice, democratic idea to protect the country from an overly powerful police force by getting one type of police to keep a check on the other. Except that it leads in practice to squabbles, arguments over spheres of responsibility and delays. This was precisely what happened on the beach at Praiola, because soon afterwards Poldi noticed her mistake and dialled 113 as well.

Ten minutes later an Alfa Romeo zoomed up and out jumped two carabinieri in dark-blue uniforms with snappy red stripes on their trousers. The older of the two had wrinkled, care-worn features. The other, who looked as young as a new-laid egg, had plucked eyebrows and a neat fringe of beard adorning the edge of his jaw.

Poldi, who had retired to her car, gave them a weary wave.

“Was it you who called us?” yelled the older man.

“Yes.” She indicated the shore. “His name is Valentino Candela.”

She watched the young policeman picking his way over the boulders.

“Your colleague should be careful not to trample on any clues.”

She saw the youngster bend over the body and recoil in horror, then put his hands over his face and turn away.

“Oh my God,” he called. “Madonna, how frightful.”

The older policeman looked irresolute for a moment. Then, after glancing in turn at his horrified colleague and the bewigged woman in the old Alfa with the Munich licence plates, he reached for his holster.

“Kindly get out of the car, signora. Very slowly.”

“I'm sorry?”

“You heard me.”

“Surely you don't think I —”

“I won't say it again,” he said. And then he did. “Get out.”

With a sigh, Poldi got out with her hands raised, one of them holding her ID. She remained standing beside the car.

“Step away from the car, signora… Good, that'll do.”

“That was just how I found him lying there.”

“Name?”

“I told you, Valentino Candela.”

“No,
your
name.”

“Isolde Oberreiter.”

“German?”

The young policeman was tottering back across the beach. Poldi saw he was weeping. She felt sorry for him.

“Yes, German, but resident in Torre Archirafi.”

The young officer stared at her while the older man peered into her car. “When did you find the deceased?”

“Half an hour ago.”

“What were you doing here all on your own?”

“I came for a swim.”

“What, at this hour?”

“I'm German. We do these kinds of things.”

The two carabinieri seemed to think this made sense. They checked Poldi's ID and carefully noted down her name, letter by letter, and likewise the licence number of her car. She was just about to ask them whether it wasn't high time they sent for forensics and informed homicide when a Polizia di Stato Fiat came roaring up and the whole performance was repeated from scratch.

Two officers got out, one younger than the other. The former shuffled down to the shore and inspected the corpse, reacted accordingly and returned in tears. In the meantime, the older man sparred with his carabiniere colleague.

BOOK: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
5.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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