Authors: Christobel Kent
NEW YORK LONDON
For Carrie, brave and kind
HE CITY IS DEAD
in August. There is movement, but it’s not life.
By day the cruise groups still crawl the streets, slower and slower as the heat intensifies, filing like ants from the Palazzo Vecchio to Santa Croce, their queues snaking around the Duomo and under the arcades of the Uffizi, trying to find shade. The shops beyond the tourist centre are shuttered and silent, the restaurants closed. By day it is bad enough: by night it is a ghost of a place and the tall palaces along the Via dei Bardi, north of the Duomo, and behind Santo Spirito stand even more silent than usual.
There are pockets, on the city’s fringes, where those too poor to escape the heat congregate in the shadows, the Senegalese and Nigerian traders, the travellers, the dispossessed. There is the African market, tucked in between the bridge of San Niccolo on the city’s eastern edge, the embankment and the green flow of the river below – or there was. Earlier this summer there has been a drive among the city’s combined police forces to move the various itinerants along to some other and less visible meeting place; like almost all such moves, its effects will be temporary. The sellers of painted gourds and chipped Nubian heads and tasselled sandals will come back, to sell and to talk, to cook on improvised barbecues and drink sickly canned orange under the scrub oak, the air clouded with mosquitoes from the river below. But for now the place is deserted, or almost.
Where the scrubby trees abut the road, dilapidated crash barriers crowd against oleanders whose crimson flowers look black in the sulphurous streetlighting: even in the hard glare of an August midday, it is hard to see what lies under the densely packed bushes, and by night impossible. Tonight there is a breath of hot wind, a Saharan wind that carries with it tiny particles of sand that will be found the next morning along windscreen wipers. With the wind, the shadows under the trees flicker and shift.
One shadow, though, a low, crumpled shape between oleanders, does not move with the breeze, nor when another set of car headlights briefly illuminates its length beneath the leaves. A silk-socked foot, shoeless; a dark trouser leg, stained darker higher on the leg with a colour that will not be distinguishable against the grey until dawn comes. A battered hand twisted under the body and what should have been a face turned into the dirty scrub.
The flow of August traffic passes on its way out of the city, but no one notices or stops to look. There is no knowing how long he has been there, nor when he will be found.
Sandro Cellini was hardly aware of having slept at all, but the luminous dial of the bedside clock told him that it was two-thirteen when he started up in the dark, unable to breathe. Just raising himself from the pillow brought Sandro out in a sweat: he sat against the bedhead and told himself, slow down. It was the heat.
He breathed: slow, shallow, in and out. Sandro knew that if he mentioned this – to his old friend Pietro, heaven forbid to Luisa – they might suggest, gently, that he talk to someone. A professional. He sat as still as he could, felt the sweat cool on his skin, felt the strong thump of his heart slow to normal.
Beside him, lying on her back, Luisa didn’t stir. Her forearms were folded over her chest, protective of its asymmetry under the thin nightgown. On one side a hollowed scar where once there had been a breast; careless of it by day, in her sleep his wife’s hands infallibly found their way to the site of the excision. In the slitted light falling through the shutters, Luisa’s cheekbones gleamed marble-blue and monumental. A
whined past, then another and on the street’s southern corner twenty metres away a burst of cackling rose from the drunks. This apartment, thought Sandro out of nowhere: this place. I hate this place.
It was the heat.
ORKING IN THE CITY
in August just wasn’t civilized. Climbing the stairs to his office for an eight-thirty appointment foisted on him by Giuli, his assistant insofar as anyone was, with a tiny, scalding plastic cup of espresso in his hand, Sandro reflected glumly on this conclusion. Only the dregs of society found themselves sitting at a desk in August, only the driven and desperate and enslaved. Forty degrees in the shade by day, and at two-thirteen that morning, when Sandro had been gasping like a fish in the bathroom, it had been thirty-one.
Luisa had not wanted him to buy a thermometer –
Why torture yourself? What is this obsession with numbers?
– but Sandro had done it on the sly; it hung just outside the bathroom window. Going in there in the early hours, as he often needed to do these days, he could lean out and take a look.
Thirty-one degrees three hours before dawn, and not a breath of cooler air anywhere in the city. Even the moon, shining perfectly round and white overhead, seemed to give out heat. During the day there were distractions but at night, in those long, dead hours between midnight and dawn when by rights the world should be cooling, the heat bore down like a weight. The very thought of Florence’s tonnes of sun-soaked stone, of the eighty kilometres of baked earth separating them from the coast, of the humidity that rose off the sluggish river and the encircling hills that held it in, was enough to bring on a panic attack.
Which was all it was: panic. The heat.
Luisa had pointed out to him a week ago – when the month had begun not with a bang but with the sigh of departing life: empty parking spaces everywhere, shutters pulled down – that now he was a private investigator, a freelance who could theoretically please himself, whereas when Sandro had been a captain in the Polizia dello Stato, he had been obliged to work in August.
‘That was different,’ Sandro had said.
Hands on hips, Luisa had not dignified this with a reply, but Sandro could have defended himself if he had had the energy.
It had been different, though: different having one desk of many in a big, air-conditioned building, moving through quiet corridors, everyone being in the same boat, the bar next to the police station staying open all year round – even on the mid-August holiday,
– not to mention Christmas Day – to cater to the officers. Who after all were providing an essential service. And out in the patrol car, there had always been Pietro to talk to.
Sandro’s partner – official or otherwise – for twenty of his thirty years in the Polizia dello Stato, Pietro Cavallaro was a modest, thoughtful man six years his junior, with a round, red-headed wife of permanently sunny disposition and a pretty daughter now coming up to eighteen. (Sandro registered that the big day was tomorrow, wasn’t it? He’d arranged to meet Pietro tonight, with their gift for the girl. Damn.) A careful, meticulous man, slow to anger: the perfect complement to Sandro, who had been described as impatient, irascible, impetuous – given to obsessive pursuits but also flashes of insight.
Very occasional flashes, these days, Sandro thought gloomily, gazing out of the window, and no Pietro to bounce them off. He heard a siren, not far away, and by ear he mapped its path around the
from the four-lane modern span of the Ponte alla Vittoria to the choked roundabout of the Porta Romana. A
crash on one of the bends that the Viale Michelangelo carved through the wooded hillside south of the city, perhaps? There was at least one a week. Lucky if the kid wasn’t under a bus. He turned away, telling himself simply to be grateful he wasn’t knocking on some parent’s door.
If August was a quiet month in the police, there was always something to do: there was paperwork to catch up on; there was drunkenness among tourists, rough sleepers to be moved on, and never mind the domestic squabbles that broke out or the psychiatric patients wandering the streets. People just went nuts in the heat, whether they were already on the edge or not.
And now Sandro was going the same way. ‘So take some time off,’ said Luisa. The irony was, last year it had been Sandro begging her to take it easy, as she recovered from the cancer treatment.
Sitting down at his desk out of habit, Sandro put a hand to his testicles, just for luck. God willing, Luisa would be two years cancer-free in January. He knew you couldn’t breathe again until five had passed, but Luisa was doing a good job: ever practical, she had decided that no purpose was served by thinking about it, so she didn’t.
Even Giuli had been away for a week to the seaside. ‘On your own?’ Luisa had quizzed her straight off, never one for the indirect approach – and on her return, brown as a nut, with a big smile and new fine lines around her eyes (‘Skin cancer, yeah, I know, I know. But it does make you feel good, the sun, doesn’t it?’), she’d been straight out of the gates with a favour to ask.
‘I don’t know if she’s got any money,’ Giuli had pleaded, calling round after her first day back at work at the Women’s Centre. Following it up slyly with, ‘But it’s not as if you’re overrun, is it?’
Standing at the desk with the sweat already beading on his forehead – next year, air-con, vowed Sandro – he could hear her downstairs, the cheerful clatter at the front door, a babble of conversation. She was bringing the client in herself. He downed the thimbleful of coffee, crushed the tiny plastic cup and dropped it in the wastebasket.
‘Hey, Giuli,’ he called through the open door.
She called back, ‘Hey, Babbo.’
‘Babbo’: Dad. It was only half a joke. Part-time at the Women’s Centre – giving free advice on STDs, contraception, pregnancy and the rest for Florence’s errant females, of which there were many and various, from middle-class runaways to Roma to illegal immigrants – and part-time receptionist-cum-assistant to Sandro, Giulietta Sarto could be a nightmare, but she was also the closest thing he and Luisa would ever have to a child.
Forty-three this year, if he remembered right, and now three years clean of drugs and booze and bad men. Giuli was an ex-con into the bargain, although no one but the most hard-hearted would have been unmoved by the full story behind her incarceration. Not a trivial matter, murder, but the man whose throat she’d cut had been her abuser and a murderer himself into the bargain, and Giuli, drug-addicted, anorexic and living on the street, had run out of options.
It was taking them longer than he expected to get up the two short flights of stairs, and Sandro found himself listening. To the slow steps, a couple taken, then a pause. To Giuli’s voice, cheerful, encouraging, solicitous. Sandro was thinking with pride that she’d turned out to be surprisingly good at compassion, little tough-nut Giuli, with her sharp little face and her spiky aubergine-dyed hair. And still listening, he heard the other voice, apologetic, breathless.
His curiosity overcoming him, Sandro was at the door himself when Giuli pushed it open on him, ushering in his first client of the day – the month. My God, thought Sandro, and he took an awkward step back, suddenly nervous as a cat at the sight that presented itself.
‘Sandro,’ Giuli said cheerfully, ‘this is Anna Niescu.’ And fixed him with a frown that said,
Pull yourself together. She’s only pregnant
And she certainly was.
But somehow more pregnant than anyone he’d ever seen before. Not because Anna Niescu was huge, exactly, although the great thrust of her belly was surely close to a full-term gestation, round as a beachball and tight as a drum under a thin cotton dress. If anything, it was because she herself was so tiny, staggering under the burden of her pregnancy: a sweet, small, heart-shaped face, narrow shoulders, one childlike hand clasping a big, cheap handbag against her stomach. Her black hair, shiny as liquorice, was parted in the centre and drawn back in a tight bun: nothing but a child herself, thought Sandro.
He could feel the unwary emotion rising in him at the sight of her. Stop it, he told himself. He stepped hastily back and, remembering himself, pulled out a chair. ‘Please,’ he gestured. ‘Please. Sit down.’