by Eadbhard McGowan
Index of persons
Romano Fabri Vice Questore in the Questura in Rome – Deputy Commissioner
Sergente Mario Fabri’s sergente. Sergeant in the police, the assistant of a commissioner
Dr Enrico Forno Dirigente generale di pubblica sicurezza. Superior of Fabri.
Dottore Sfondrini District judge
Professore Pruneti Member of P3
Domenica Schiavone Owner of a trattoria
Manuela De Santis Bistro owner
Ambros Vitale Bank director, called the ‘visitator’
Stephanie Wolf German nurse
Contessa Cara Calucci
Cavaliere Gian Alvise Vineyard owner
Signore Rosso (code-name) Highest State Attorney
- Below the surface
- On the surface
- Fallen off the surface
- Floating to the surface
- Hidden under the surface
* * * * *
Below the surface
Demons wear masks,
while roaming among us,
change their appearance,
a carnival in Venice
You think it always happens somewhere else
but evil is already lurking nearby,
in a side street, a dark alley,
or sits at your table.
I am Romano Fabri, the Vice Questore of this region and here starts the sequence of stories and spectacular criminal cases.
The streets in my quarter are like a capillary system or like communicating tubes or pipes. It is a system, advisable to be familiar with, to know your way around if you live there. It is not really a system because it does not follow rules, it is an organism or habitat shared by many, down to insects and microbes, most of the time in peaceful cohabitation.
It is like an unending maze, with each street leading to another: a map resembling a human face.
People live here who are happy, apparently. In any case, they pretend to be happy or are unhappy and do not admit it. Some people give the quarter character and colour and there are people who constitute a riddle, an enigma, raise question marks or leave no trace. People come and go, move in or out.
There was an elderly man in a black suit who visited the quarter, detached himself from the shadows thrown onto the cobblestones. He looked like an undertaker.
He was called the ‘Visitator‘ because he appeared unannounced, checked his surrounding with a critical, scrutinizing eye and disappeared. It was not known where he came from, where he was going, what he was doing.
Rumour had it that he was affluent and owned olive groves in the neighbouring district.
There is time and leisure to wait patiently for the harvest time, just as the olive trees have been waiting for hundreds of years.
The ‘visitator’ had a quick lunch from time to time at Manuela De Santis’s Bistro to enjoy her speciality: Gnocchetti Sardi: Homemade Semolina dumplings, sausage, sweet peas, tomato sauce, pecorino cheese.
Manuela was tight-lipped when asked about the background of her customer. She guarded it as one would guard the details of a customer of a disreputable establishment, similar to the omertà, the code of silence.
Silence fell over the matter when he was found one night in a side street, strangled, his tongue hanging out of his blue face.
Manuela De Santis took later her (and his) speciality off the menu.
The ‘visitator’, so much leaked through, had the Greek letters Apistia (breach of trust) written on his forehead.
DNA was taken but showed no similarities in the data bank.
* * *
The ascending alley, (or was it a descending one?), was quiet in the afternoon. Brick walls, red and bare, right and left, offered support but also rejection. A cat chased a rat but failed to follow it into its refuge, which was below a window of Domenica’s trattoria.
A man left a house hastily at the top of the alley and hurried down as if driven by ghosts. “Stronzo,” a voluptuous woman shouted after him, “coward dog,” and shook her fist in his direction. The sound and echo of her screaming intensified between the house fronts in the narrow alley, was tossed back and forth like a ball, in turn, responded by curses let out from windows, which stood open because of the heat, and protests were uttered against the disturbance.
“We are having a wake here and you are shouting.”
Indeed, black ribbons hung from the entrance door and flickering candles stood at the right and left of the entrance, and consoling mourners arrived and left in intervals. They mourned the unexplained death of a young woman. There were murmured prayers.
Domenica Schiavone’s trattoria looked inconspicuous from the outside but was famous for its exclusive red wine and appetisers, especially the meatball buns, Tuscan truffles, the homemade olive and caper bread, the salamella sausage from Lombardy. The establishment owed some fame to the owner. When she was seventeen, she met a brothel owner in Milano whom she later married and for whom she worked until he committed suicide. She bought the trattoria with the inherited money.
‘If you are an eagle you fly, if you are a horse you trot, that is how it will always be’ was her motto.
Dottore Sfondrini, slim, greying, sat at the bar and sipped on a grappa. His elegant hand showed a fraternity ring with a skull and the inscription:
‘Virtus Junxit Mors Non Separabit‘
‘What virtue has joined death shall not separate’.
His hand rested on Domenica’s.
Fragments of their conversation were: “Dangerous game … dragged into, a deadly trap … the noose pulls tight …”
From the old-fashioned jukebox sounded the grainy, notable, resonant voice of Paolo Conte:
Via, via, vieni via di qui, niente più ti lega a questi luoghi, …………………
When the coffin was carried out of the opposite house, a painful, touching scene, people stepped outside the trattoria to pay their respects.
A couple pushed their way into the trattoria. He had a brutal and protruding chin; she was dressed in a military attire in black.
The procession, led by a haggard, ascetic priest, who looked across at the trattoria with a hateful glance, crept down the alley like a black lindworm.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae…
When the guests returned to the trattoria, Sfondrini had disappeared, no one had seen him leaving the restaurant to pay his last respects to the dead woman, nobody had remembered his presence outside.
The door to the wine cellar behind the bar was open. Wine cellars were entries and exits of the maze of underground passageways in this quarter.
Domenica looked piercingly and viciously at me when I asked about Sfondrini. When she pushed the glass of wine in front of me, the skin of her hands looked like snakeskin and in the dimly lit room, her eyes sparkled like a cat’s.
* * *
Stars can be deceptive, at least I do not trust them, for many of them became extinct millions of years ago, and their shine, which travelled for millions of lightyears, fools us into believing in their shining existence.
The pale face of the moon shone like a dim lantern and shed a dreamy light on streets that meandered at angles and defied the laws of geometry.
Each seemed to become darker and narrower than the last.
I could hear nothing other than the sound of my footsteps in those alleys where the silence is never broken but for the howl of warring dogs in the distant neighbourhood or the odd cry of agony. The streetlamps cast more shadows than light on the cobblestones.
I felt that I was watched, that something was gazing down on me, lurched over me in the shadows of the surrounding buildings. When I walked on, the alley opened to Piazza Garibaldi and there, on the opposite side, on a building gable, an all-knowing, gazing, all-seeing eye. I knew the building from earlier times and was anxious to sneak into the basement which was always enshrouded in secrecy. It had some mysterious attraction for me, stronger than curiosity.
The building stood empty and abandoned. Some windows were covered with chipboard panels. A separate entrance to the basement, accessible by stairs, was leading to a door, the front of it covered with pigeon droppings. The smell of discarded belongings, city soot and hopelessness wafted towards me.
It led to underground passages, I went from landing to landing, through muddy caves and saw in a semi-dark hall crowds of hopeless souls in an almost palpable grey mist, the walls covered with decay and the odour of death.
I saw people with letters written on their foreheads. All seemed to be grouped according to categories: fraudster, slanderers, traitors, informers, sinners…
And there sat Dottore Sfondrini. He looked up and said “Buona sera” with a sad smile, on his forehead the word in Greek απιστία Apistia ‘breach of trust’.
Fear gripped me; in panic, I tried to flee the location but was unable to move.
From far I could perceive the city’s roar, the din of the morning market, beeping horns, the hum of engines, the screeches of sparrows in the piazza.
Who would believe what I had seen, this secret place, Dante’s inferno?
I heard three loud rhythmic knocks of a gavel echoing through the hall.
At the same time, someone was knocking at my door. The noise woke me up. It was all a dream, a nightmare.
I looked at the clock. 5 am. My sergente stood outside.
“My apologies, Vice Questore, we could not reach you by phone, we found another body in a side street of Piazza Garibaldi.”
“Do you know who it is?”
“The district judge, Dr Sfondrini”
“And any distinctive findings?”
“Yes, his throat was cut. And a Greek word had been written on his forehead with red lipstick. Do you know Greek, Vice Questore?”
“Yes. I have learnt ancient Greek at grammar school.”
The sergente showed me the word on the screen of his mobile.
“απιστία Apistia means ‘Breach of trust’”
“That proves what a humanistic school education is good for,” said the sergeant mockingly.
It reminded him of the book written by Leonardo Sciascia about the Mafia in Sicily, Equal Danger. Dead judges do not speak. He wrote about the murder of judges who turned against the mafia.
On the surface
When Romano Fabri stepped out into the street after a sleepless night, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he found the usual monotone greys of the town brightened by a glaring morning light; he saw that it had rained after a lengthy dry spell.
Fabri was annoyed. The minister had called the Questura yesterday and made a ruckus and had raved because three murders or unexplained deaths had not yet been solved. He had also blathered about damage to tourism. Ridiculous. Tourism, my foot, as if the tourists who were carted here by busloads were worried about three deaths. And most tourists cannot read the local news in Italian.
As he crossed a bridge, he felt the cold. A harsh wind was blowing in from the nearby sea. He stopped at a café, where he sat at a marble table between a pair of mirrors that reflected each other; turning his back on them, he ordered fried eggs, a vermicelli soup and a double espresso to start the day.
He was in an optimistic mood; he had been tipped off. On his way to Domenica’s Trattoria, he recalled the recent findings.
He had ordered his team to follow him half an hour later to conduct a surprise search.
At the far end of the trattoria was a television showing a soccer match against Italy somewhere overseas. Apart from one or two groups of men playing cards on bare tables, everyone in the trattoria was watching the game. Further guests in the trattoria were Giuseppe, who always sat at the bar and got drunk every day, and a man in a dark suit who sat in the corner in shadow. He was drinking water and briefly looked up when Fabri entered.
Dominica Schiavone showed a bitter facial expression and polished wine glasses behind the counter. She made no move to ask Fabri if he wanted anything to eat or drink.
“I still don’t have an answer from you as to what Sfondrini’s last minutes were, where he went, how he disappeared and why. I picked up snippets of your conversation and it was about ‘Dangerous game, … dragged into, a deadly trap… Can you explain that to me?”
“No, you must have misunderstood.”
“I have good ears. Besides, strangers were staying here who were not seen in the neighbourhood before.”
He placed a composite sketch on the counter. “Ever seen them before?”
“No, never seen.”
“Good, I can tip off the Guardia de Finanza sometime, they’ll turn your place inside out.”
“Oh yes, with threats you are always quick.”
“Threats? That’s part of our job to bring everything to the surface.”
At that moment, his colleagues in white overalls entered the trattoria. Domenica’s face turned pale and the man in the corner was about to leave. One of the team held the search warrant under her nose.
Fabri pointed to the door to the wine cellar and after a while, splintering and bursting of bottles was heard.
Somebody called the Vice Questore. When he walked down the stairs, cobwebs got stuck on his face.
One of the team pointed to a door they found behind the wine shelves. The room behind was empty, except a few crates, abandoned packing material.
When Domenica was interrogated, she denied having any knowledge about the disappearance of Dr Sfondrini.
* * *
The wind howled and swirled leaves around. A fine drizzle added to the dreary mood. The streets were deserted. A dog let off an ominous howl in a backyard when he entered her bistro.
Manuela De Santishad revealed the name of her frequent guest, the “visitator”. She confirmed that a lot of land with olive trees belonged to him and that he is/was a banker, Ambros Vitale, from the neighbouring town and a high ranked member of an influential business group.
Fabri remembered the name. Vitale had been involved in a financial scandal a few years ago but seemed to have escaped with clean hands.
The day drew to a close. The sky darkened and the soot from the chimneys hung so heavily over the narrow avenue that it already felt like night.
He parked the car around the corner, near a villa in a suburb. The house, a neoclassical building, in a side street, was quiet and dark.
There was no light except behind the front door.
A dim and soulless glow. The curtains were drawn on the first floor, and the windows stared down at him, as empty and frightening as blind men’s eyes.
The building offered a cold, unfriendly, forlorn, and insipid impression.
Fabri climbed up the outside stairs to the entrance. He rang a brass doorbell under the name plate VITALE. After a few minutes, somebody approached the door from inside and asked:
“Who is there?”
“Fabri, policia de stato.”
The door opened slightly. The face of an elderly man with a confused and questioning expression appeared. Fabri told him his name and title.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Fabri asked.
“I am Professore Pruneti. I am a friend of the family. Please be silent. Mrs. Vitale went to bed, she is not well, understandable after the death of the husband.”
He asked Fabri to step inside. He saw a framed Latin motto on the wall, facing the entry. Melior de cinere surgo (Flourishing I rise from the ashes again)
“I have to ask a few questions.”
Fabri was led into a library. A faint light coming from the back room and the streetlight shining into the corridor threw shadows on the ceiling, fashioned them into finely etched devil’s faces.
Steps were shuffling on the floor above him, otherwise, it was deathly quiet.
“Is it about Direttore Generale Ambros Vitale death?” the man asked.
“Tell me about him.”
“Well, he was the head of our bank, respected in business circles, and we are shocked about what happened to him.”
“Did the kind of death he suffered make any sense to you?”
“Did he have enemies? ”
“Maybe unsatisfied customers, quite usual in bank business. People have high expectations. But would that justify to kill somebody in this cruel way? ”
A door opened. A warm draft wafted towards him.
His state attorney stood in the door frame. He did not expect to meet him here.
“Ah, buona sera, Fabri, what are you doing here?” the state attorney asked surprised.
“I do my duty; I look for information on Direttore Generale Ambros Vitale.”
“What is that good for, it is sad enough. You should have made an appointment, or you could have asked me. Isn’t it unusual to torment a family that suffered the death of a father and husband at this time of the day?”
“Procuratore, I only try to collect some information to solve a crime case and as you know we are understaffed.”
He looked with hostility and contempt at Fabri.
“I wish you a good night. Buona notte, Fabri !!!”
Fabri made a half-hinted bow, a courteous gesture. Out of the corner of his eye he saw in the shelves booklets of right-wing material, fasces, and a picture of the Duce in an adjacent room.”
His friends in the procuratore generale in Rome, had informed him about the first investigations into a secret group and about a few names which had seeped through, among them Vitale, professore Pruneti and the son-in-law of Vitale, who owned a logistic company.
He returned to the car.
Fabri listened to the mournful sighs of rain slipping down the rainspouts, and the buzz from neighbourhood coffeehouses, he went into a shop and bought some bread and cheese and returned to his apartment.
He knew that he had opened a dangerous door.
* * *
Stairwells in back street apartment buildings that stank of sleep, garlic, mildew, lime, coal, and cooking oil.
Fabri left his apartment and on the way to his car threw his cigarette butt on the pavement.
On the way to the Questura he passed billboards with giant letters that no one stopped to read, graffiti that made no sense because half the paint had washed away.
He stopped at a traffic light; a motorcycle lined up at the driver’s side. Fabri looked at the two motorcyclists wearing black-orange helmets. The traffic light changed to green.
The last he saw was a gun held by the pillion passenger pointing at him and he heard a shot.
Fallen off the surface
Romano Fabri opened his eyes. Slowly and carefully. He could not figure out where he was,
the environment surrounding him. Everything was enshrouded in a mild, white, kind of sterile light. He had some recollection that he had been attacked. That bullets had hit him…he remembered the impact, the black curtain.
A nurse entered the ward, extraordinarily pretty. Was he in paradise? What did it all mean?
He heard monotonous beeping, rhythmic tones, saw flashing lights above him. He turned his head. He recognised tubes, cannulas on his hands and arms. He squinted to his left at the green numbers on a monitor. 120 78 44. Was that his blood pressure?
Or was it another one of his nightmares? A replica of Dante‘s inferno?
The pain was real. The nurse was real because some male adrenalin caused a known feeling and sensual emotion.
He was happy that there was some feeling, some drive in him, though the rest of his body seemed numb.
Real was the smell of Lysol. He was in a bed surrounded by wires, lights, monitors and medical appliances. He squinted to the right and saw a window and a blue sky. A bird flew by. He heard a plane. He noticed a German accent and looked up, the light on the ceiling blinded him.
He heard her saying: “My name is Stephanie Wolf. Sono tedesca. I am German. The doctors will see you in a moment. What can I do for you?” She bowed over him; a full face, velvety skin, white teeth and red lips.
“Una straniera, Fabri thought. He remembered from school, straniero came from strano…strange, weird, alien.
“You have good Italian.”
“I learned it in a college in Rome.”
“I can teach you more.”
She found him charming.
Outside, birds were chirping, and he told Stephanie that in Italian the sparrows are called passeri, and the blackbirds are called merli.
“You are a romantic.”
He looked daringly at her breasts. She blushed.
“I mean, do you want tea, coffee, water…?”
“A grappa would be fine and a risotto with a tender slice of meat.”
“You must be joking. You escaped death by a hair’s breadth.”
The door opened, a group of serious-looking men entered, all in white coats, and gathered around his bed.
“Now, Vice Questore, the shots missed an artery and the spine. You have been very lucky. You lost a lot of blood. But you are recovering well, but we would like to keep you in for another week.”
“Another week? I have to work.”
“You can forget work until you have healed up.”
One of the white coats fixed an x-ray to an illuminated display.
“Look here, that is the entry of the wounds, see? Your blood values are fine, blood pressure ok. You have great healing power. You are a tough man.”
“I have to be tough to be Vice Questore in this cursed region”, Fabri said.
“Have a rest, take your medicaments, we leave you in the hands of the nurse.”
They left in a row like ducks, the man from the lodge glanced at him with a smile.
“I have to change the dressing and wash you,” said the nurse. “Sit up.”
It was difficult for him and there were beads of sweat on his forehead.
Her hand went behind his back to prop him up. She liked the play of his back muscles and shoulders, and she liked his face, now with a sign of a beard after a week without shaving.
And he felt the same way about her. Her voluptuous figure, her strong thighs that supported him while she changed the bandages, her buttocks like those of the marble goddesses statues in Roman temples.
“I have to get out of here, as soon as possible. Where is my mobile?”
She opened the locker.
“Here we are.”
He dialled the number of his friend in the procuratore generale in Rome.
After a while, he took the call.
“Aah, Romano, risen from the dead?”
“Don’t talk rubbish. What has happened?”
“Somebody wants you out of the way. I’ll say it straight out. The hospital is full of police to protect you. You need to get away to a safe place, but I don’t know how without attracting attention.
You must have stepped on someone’s foot. Somebody important and influential”
* * *
“San Lorenzo dei martiri innocenti, casca dal ciel carboni ardenti”
(Saint Lawrence of innocent martyrs, hot embers fall from the sky). An Italian saying
Fabri called the nurse over to his bed and put his fingers in his lips and whispered:
“Stephanie, I have to get out of here, they’re trying to kill me. Everything smells like a graveyard in here. How do I get out? I can’t go through that door, there are uniforms all over the place.”
She said: “Tomorrow is La Notte di San Lorenzo, the Night of Saint Lawrence, one of summer’s most awaited and beloved events in Italy, when people gather outside, in parks and squares to admire the night sky and catch a falling star – so you can make your wish.
That’s the night the Earth passes through the Perseid meteor shower which is caused by the particles of the Swift-Tuttle comet on the Earth’s annual orbit through its path. Most Italians will look up at the sky and are distracted, so ideally, you can leave the hospital without being noticed.”
* * *
It was a cloudless night.
The impending star-studded August night had attracted staff members and police.
Stephanie led him across the outside balcony that stretched along the front rooms. She had given him some pain killer and had provided Fabri with a patient’s shirt, jacket, and trousers; his clothes had been discarded, they had been full of blood and bullet holes.
Both mingled with the crowd and disappeared through an unoccupied room, Wolf wheeled Fabri out in a wheelchair into the nearest lift and left the building behind a crowd of people who looked up at the sky.
At the corner, hidden by hedges, parked her Citroen 2 CV, Le Canard, the duck.
They drove through a dark and surreal night with nearly no traffic. The further south they drove, the more frequent were the hills to the left and right of the road. Cypresses and avenues of pines. Vineyards covered the gentle slopes, the first vines were planted by Greek mariners fleeing the Trojan Wars. Fabri liked the famous Casavecchia wine with Wild Boar Ragù, or the red version of Lacyrma Christi, a special blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso grapes that grow on the slopes of Vesuvius and goes with spaghetti and tomato sauce. A boldly mineral forward wine.
He made a deep sigh.
After a while, a small town appeared on a hill on the right with a church tower and a stretch of walls that could be seen from the road.
She stopped her car in front of a shabby house. Over the entrance stood a faded inscription Albergo. Hostel.
The cloudless sky did not appear flat as usual but as a vault. A sky like the one in old books, covered with golden dots, meteors …And there they saw the fireflies. They hovered in the bushes, glittering like tiny rhinestone diamonds.
“Lucciole is the Italian name for these lovely fireflies.” Fabri laughed. Something seemed to amuse him.
“Yes,” he said, “there are not even that many in the main station district in Rome.”
It took her a while to understand.
“Lucciole is the Italian name for prostitutes. Una lucciola. A hooker.”
“Ecco,” Romano said. “You didn’t learn that in your college in Rome.”
There was no soul in sight, only a few cats. A night without streetlights. People needed darkness to see the stars in the sky. Only a narrow strip of light fell on the old cobblestones from the hostel window.
The window next to the entrance showed a reddish light. It looked like a brothel. He told Stephanie: Brothel means casa di toleranza in Italian. They entered.
“C’e qualcuno?” exclaimed Stephanie. Is there someone there?
An old man shuffled up to what looked like a reception desk.
“Numero undici,” she said. Number 11.
They climbed a steep flight of stairs. “They hid Jews here at the time of the fascists,” Stephanie explained. “The area was and is firmly in the hands of the PCI, the Partito Comunista Italiano.”
Next to the floor bathroom was a metal door, behind which was another door. Perfect hiding place and camouflage. It smelled of dust dancing in the light beams of the lamp. There was another door and behind, a very economically furnished room with no superfluous space between a table and two armchairs made of plastic, a Formica-veneered cupboard, and a narrow bed.
She looked at him, he smiled. He detested the word ‘sleep’, for having sex, which reminded him of laziness and dozing, making love, fare l’amore, meant something else for him.
He opened a side door. Then they were standing in the open air. In the middle of a rooftop landscape. He smoked a cigarette to calm himself. Isolated dreamy lights, dogs barking, a starry sky that was deep blue, a landscape of very peculiar aesthetics with the black outlines of the holm oaks in the background. “
They’re called lecce, holm oaks”.
“Ti voglio bene“. I like you, he said softly. That sounded much more heartfelt and honest than: Ti amo.
Ti amo, that sounded to him like kitsch, like a pop song.
“Ti voglio bene anch’io,” she susurrated. “I like you too.”
Romano Fabri was exhausted and stretched out on the bed. The window was open to let the cool evening air into the room.
Music sounded in the distance, folk songs, people were singing a happy tune, but the music soon faded. A clock from a nearby church chimed three times. Romano listened into the silence, thought he heard voices in the neighbouring room, behind the walls. Intently, holding his breath, he tried to locate the voices. They did not sound Italian, more like a fearful whisper in a strange language.
Romano was convinced that fear, despair, could take root in the walls of buildings and remain there to surface at night.
Was it the fear of the people who had hidden in this building from the fascists? The emanations, the sweat and the tears that the house had preserved, that the walls had absorbed? The negative vibrations caused by the interrogations of the Polizia Politica, the cries of the tortured, the paralysing apprehension, the horror suffered by the deportees?
Or were they the prayers to a God who had abandoned his creation, had given up in frustration and had turned his back to the world? Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha- olam… breathed the walls like prayers, full of disappointed hope and yet filled with a last desperate trust? Blessed are You, Most High, King of the universe…
He thought he heard a cracking of floorboards, approaching footsteps, but then all that remained was the buzz of a lone mosquito. As the effect of the drugs faded, his pain surfaced. He fumbled for his cigarettes, but the pockets were empty, he longed for a glass of wine, a desire awoken by the scent of the vineyards in which this place was nestled, a desire carried by the crisp air of an August night.
He let the memories pass him by, the mysterious events, the attempt on his life, the hospital, his disappearance from it, rather a hasty escape, the help of the German nurse.
He remembered that the expression in German for ‘nurse’ was ‘sister’ as in the UK the senior ward nurse is ‘Sister’. He shook his head:
People were not so selfless as to sacrifice themselves for others especially after a short time they had met. He knew her only a few hours. Did he fall into a trap?
Why had she helped him against all indicated orders and all medical logic, putting herself in danger and risking her job?
His father’s warning came back to him: never trust a German, especially a German woman.
He recalled the saying from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy – Inferno: Canto 5 /19.
“guarda com’ entri e di cui tu ti fide;
non t’inganni l’ampiezza de l’intrare!”
“Look how thou enterest, and in whom thou trustest;
Let not the portal’s amplitude deceive thee.”
He had desired her, had followed a masculine feeling; it was like a flare-up after the shock the escape from death. He had become hot for her. The physical had covered his usual caution, had pushed his analytical sobriety out of sight – What an idiot he was.
How did she know about this hideout? Why had she brought him here?
The time on his mobile lit up and the date: 03.10 h / 13th August.
His last memory of a date was the day of the attack, the 6th August. The charge indicator of the mobile was at 12%. He had no charging cable.
An inner voice told him that he was not safe. What to do? He had no transport, not a lot of cash. Fortunately, he had his police ID which could open doors. He sat down in the armchair. Anyhow, in a sitting position, he had less pain. He would wait until sunrise and contact his colleagues. His only interest was to find out who wanted to kill him. Frightening.
* * *
He must have dozed off when he was startled by the hooting of cars in the narrow streets. It was 6 am.
He went with his usual care to the door, making no more noise than a feather. He listened, opened the door and sidled down the staircase. The stairs smelled of damp, dust, and dirt.
Approaching the lobby, he made sure that nobody was around, scurried to the main door, which was unlocked and in the shadow of the outside wall went to the corner of the piazza.
Covered by an archway he phoned Mario, his sergente.
He whispered: “Don’t mention my name, I am in Cassino, I have no car, I do not want to contact the local police. I will take the next train to Rome. Pick me up.”
“All are alarmed here, all are looking for you, are you crazy?”
“I will tell you later.”
When he had finished the call, he entered the telephone number of the hospital. After a few seconds, the switchboard answered. He asked for Stephanie Wolf.
After a moment, the switchboard came back.
“She is off sick.”
For him it was enigmatic. He could not make sense of it.
He decided to walk to the train station Stazione Cassino to get out of the area.
After a walk of ten minutes, he reached the front building of the station, a grey building, dull and boring with seven arches imitating in a ridiculous form the classical architecture.
Romano examined both pavements carefully but saw nothing alarming or suspicious.
A song floated across the station, a song that spoke of love and grief, and the emptiness of life.
A woman peered into the window of a sandwich shop, two girls carried a knapsack, an old woman in a brown coat waited to cross the street.
But as Romano set off to the ticket counter, he could feel that eye again, gazing down at him. He traced it back to this metaphysical experience he had had in the Piazza Garibaldi, and that resembled more a dream, or Dante’s cantos, when he was on the search for Dottore Sfondrini.
He stopped at a stand to buy cigarettes and matches, tearing open his new pack with a slow gesture, and as he lit up, a thin wreath of smoke rose from his mouth.
There were two gipsy women playing cards at the table outside the yellow building of the cafeteria at the left of the station building, both turned around to smile at Romano. He ordered an espresso and a glass of water and gulped both in the want of some liquid and devoured a croissant.
Romano Fabri took the train to Roma Termini with a stop in Frosinone.
On the train he boarded half an hour later, an old man told him a story dating back forty years with a sad end. Romano was not prepared to listen to negative stories and was glad when a lady entered and ambled towards him and took a seat opposite him.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked, with a lovely smile. A filterless cigarette appeared between her fingers. “Could I trouble you for a light?” She leaned forward, making the most of her alluring cleavage.
Romano lit her cigarette. A cloud of dense smoke enveloped her head and when he watched her large black long-lashed eyes rising slowly from the mist Romano thought about the women who tried to deceive him in the last few weeks: Manuela De Santis, Domenica Schiavone and maybe also Stephanie Wolf.
The old man who had told him his story, sitting next to Romano Fabri, awoke from his slumber, turned to Romano and said, “Now, you, tell me a story!”
“What story do you want to hear?”
“Whatever comes into your mind. Any story will do.”
“There was a man who came home one day to find his beautiful wife had left him,” Romano said. “And so he went to look for her. Wherever he went in the city, he found traces of her, but still, he couldn’t find her…”
“And then, what happened?”
No, there must be more to it!” said the old man. ”What does this man see in the traces that his wife had left?”
“The man sees in the traces his past, the past, he shared with his wife.”
The lady at the window lifted her head and smiled.
Romano noticed that he was emitting an unpleasant odour. Since escaping from the hospital, personal hygiene had taken a bit of a back seat. But everything in the compartment was dominated by a mix of a smell of garlic emitted by the old man and her heavy perfume.
He looked at her who was engrossed in a book. Canting his head, he tried to get a glimpse of the title.
She noticed his interest and showed him the cover:
The hidden human secrets.
Psychotherapy based on somatic, depth- and transpersonal psychology.
She saw his questioning look.
“I am somewhat of a therapist. I deal with human abysses.
And you, what are you doing?”
“I stand at a conveyor belt and sort waste…”
She smiled a mocking smile.
“You are rather involved in something dangerous; you can’t fool me.”
She crossed her legs and in the flash of the moment, he saw that she was wearing suspenders with her black nylons.
“Sorry, I am a bit unkempt, not to say dishevelled, I had a car breakdown and try to get home,” he apologized.
“I have experienced worse,” she said. “Don’t worry, I am also a bit like a nurse. Nothing human is alien to me.”
“Nurse, my foot,” he thought when his eyes fell on her overlong red fingernails.
A trolley with provisions, pushed by a grumpy man, jerked its way through the train compartment. The hot water boiler for coffee on the top wobbled precariously. Newspapers were on offer, and he bought the regional Il Mattino.
A headline sprang in his face:
A mysterious disappearance of a Vice Questore from the hospital where he was treated after an assassination attempt.
With the article, his photo was displayed.
Romano held the newspaper sideways to hide the front page from his fellow passengers.
“Are you travelling to Rome”, she asked Romano, interrupting his thoughts.
He pressed the newspaper to his chest.
“Yes, and you?” was his hesitant reaction.
“I have to get off soon in Frosinone, but I live in Rome.
By the way, we should have met long ago.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Maybe we did meet long ago, I believe in rebirth, and in providence,” Romano said looking at the woman’s face which was reflected in the windowpane, and he saw the slightly hilly, lush green landscape covered with low trees.
“You are an esoteric,” she said with a seductive look, fluttering her eyelashes.
“Maybe, in life, you have the choice to become a cynic, a poet or an esoteric.”
Half an hour later the train loudspeaker announced the arrival in Frosinone.
She got up, took her hand luggage, and handed him her business card with an elegant move of her hand before she left the compartment. His glance followed the rhythmic to the right and left swinging movements of her buttocks.
He looked at the card. On light violet paper with gilt edge stood her address:
Contessa Cara Calucci
Via di Tor Millina 16
and a telephone number and like a kind of arms, two riding crops in saltire.
Romano knew the area in the historical quarter in South Rome with its small restaurants and cafés, and he smiled.
* * *
The train arrived on a busy platform in Roma Termini; Romano pushed himself through the crowd. In front of the exit waited sergente Mario, leaning at his car; he wiped the sweat off his forehead.
After Romano gave a swift report on the happenings of the last day; the sergente nodded.
“I understand, the Dirigente generale wants to see you. He was concerned but relieved that you surfaced again.”
“He can wait, bring me home, I am stinking like a hedgehog. Are there new findings?”
“Yes, we evaluated the only working security camera on that road. It took the rear of the motorbike, there was a sticker on the back and the body shape of the pillion could be that of a woman and the safety helmet had a striking design. The licence number was illegible.”
The sergente dropped him off at his apartment.
“I will be back in thirty minutes”.
He sucked in the familiar musty smell of the stairwell and pulled himself up by the wooden banister. Climbing the stairs was difficult for him. He stood breathless in front of his door.
Fortunately, he had his key hidden in a safe place. He never kept his house key on him to prevent reproduction or theft of his key in an unattended moment.
As soon as he had entered his apartment the landline phone began to ring a good three or four seconds after Romano opened the door, it was as raucous and insistent as an alarm clock. Or did it seem to be so loud because he was no longer accustomed to the sound of his landline, which had remained unused for a while because people rang him on his mobile?
Who phoned him shortly after he arrived, was he watched?
He tried to find his way to the phone across the dark and cluttered room. He fumbled for the light switch and tore the curtain open, then struggled with the receiver.
“So, you’ve come back,” said a voice he did not recognize. It was a voice of an elderly man.
“I need to see you urgently. I have been looking for you for days.”
“I can’t place your voice.”
“We met once, years ago. It was I who supported you when doubts were spread by the authorities when you got to the bottom of a mystery in an overly complicated case, I only mention the name Barbarossa.”
Romano was unable to connect the name with a face or the past.
“Who gave you the number?”
“A mutual friend. I’d like to talk to you when we meet. I do not want to talk about it on the phone. Let’s meet in the church San Nicola in Carcere, Via del Teatro di Marcello, tomorrow at 12 after the morning mass.”
“Listen, I am not accustomed that somebody orders me to a place. You should come to the Questura and talk to me and my colleagues”.
What he heard was only the dialling tone, the caller had hung up. Via del Teatro di Marcello? He remembered the place from his earlier days as a police trainee when he and his colleagues were on guard duty to protect the Tempio Maggiore di Roma.
He made a bit of a cat’s lick and avoided touching the bandages, he brushed his teeth, shaved, dressed in a black shirt, black trousers, and black jacket, ready to join his sergente to the Questura.
He stood in silence for a moment, gazing out into the sunlit street, the shadows of the trees flickering with the light of the afternoon sun.
When he was about to leave his apartment, the phone began to ring again. It was the same voice on the phone. At Romano’s request, this time he identified himself by his name: Cavaliere Aurelio Alvise. But Romano was unable to connect the name with a face and presumed it was an alias.
“There’s going to be a complot. A deeply fascist little band, a brand-new order. They believe their time has come to rescue Italy,” Alvise said.
Fabri got impatient: “I’ve never had any dealings with that sort of nonsense. And it would not fall into my area of responsibility, it would be a matter of the National Security.”
“No, it is your responsibility, you set the stone rolling already. We must meet; I will bring back all those lost memories. You will soon see how right I am and give this everything you have.”
When Romano stepped out into the street to find the usual monotone yellow-grey of his quarter brightened by a likewise yellow light, he realised that the details of his environment suddenly meant more to him.
The narrow pavement was uneven and the street full of exhaust fumes of the traffic. But the air had its odd pungency, and as Romano breathed it in, he felt at peace. Arriving at the crossroad that was the heart of his quarter, though he had seen them thousand times before, the apartment fronts and shop windows and bank panels and neon letters seemed new, transformed.
The near-death experience had raised the value of what he had taken so long for granted.
The afternoon drew in by the time they arrived at the Questura in Via di S. Vitale, a white building with mesh-protected barred windows on the ground floor.
They entered the inner yard through a narrow entry gate.
Their footsteps resounded in the corridors when they approached the door of the Dirigente generale di pubblica sicurezza.
Dr Enrico Forno sat behind his desk, behind him the flag of the Italian Republic.
“Ah, bongiorno, Fabri, good to see you. Sit down.”
He reported to his superior. When Forno leafed through the files on his desk Romano saw that he was wearing a golden ring with the insignia ‘square and compass’.
“Fabri, I do not hold it against you, but you should take care of yourself, we need you here. Under those exceptional circumstances, I had a full understanding of your decisions. Take a few days off and, most important, return to medical help to be looked after. You should be careful, the next time could be the last time.”
It sounded like a threat.
“Three people have been killed and I will not lay low”, said Fabri.
Forno raised his eyebrows.
The sergente waved Fabri into his office and showed him the video camera recordings. The sticker represented RI, Resistenza Italiana, the sign of a right-wing movement, the helmet was a striking orange-black Bogotto V271 BT. The brand of the motorcycle was Ducati.
“I have seen this sticker before”, pondered Romano.
After a few seconds, he exclaimed: “Now it dawns me, I saw it at Domenica Schiavone’s trattoria. Sergente, something we must have missed. Something that you don’t see right away and has been all the time in front of your eyes.”
Against his attitude and conviction, he drove to the meeting place suggested by Alvise. The meeting point opposite the Tiber Island was only six minutes from the Questura.
It was already 12.05.
On his way, he remembered the Contessa’s address, which was not far, located in the quarter at the right of Via del Teatro di Marcello.
From a distance he saw the church, a church built on Roman ruins, an ochre building with a striking portal and a high green door between two columns, colours that now mixed with the flashing blue lights of an ambulance.
An uncomfortable feeling came over him and he was about to turn around and drive back but he decided to park his car opposite the church. He entered the church to look for Alvise. The church was empty apart from a nun who extinguished the candles. He left and went over to the ambulance, showed his ID and asked for the cause of the operation.
The paramedic pointed to a priest standing in the doorway.
“Fabri, Vice Questore, what happened?” The priest was petrified.
“A murder in our church, what a sacrilege.”
The priest seemed dazed, his hands folded in prayer. Fabri realised that he would not extract any information from him at this point.
He addressed a man, who stepped out of the ambulance with a sign on the front of his white jacket ‘emergency physician’.
He introduced himself.
“The police is fast,” the physician said.
“I am on duty and had an appointment in the vicinity. Who is the victim?”
“Cavaliere Aurelio Alvise, he was found dead in the pew. Follow me, I show you something.”
Fabri followed him into the ambulance. The dead, a man in his 70s, had a peaceful expression on his weather tanned face.
The doctor pointed at a puncture in the carotid artery.
“A case for the forensics,” said Fabri.
The pathologist held up a bag. “This was found in his hand. A bag full of ashes.”
Moments of pensive silence,
moments in which your life
shows the many changes
over a long time
that it no longer resembles
the ancient vision,
but has become a tangle
that can no longer be unknotted.
And you ask for enlightenment,
even though you already know
that you will search in vain
until the end.
But a ray of light will suffice
to ignite the dawning longing,
let resound on brittle strings
the melody of dreams.
The findings of the forensic department indicated that a fast-acting nerve poison, injected into the artery of the Cavaliere, the kind and origin could not be proved.
Vice Questore Fabri aimed for the posh Roman quarter Parioli and realised that he drove again, the second time, past the address of the Contessa, now lying on the left-hand side of Via del Teatro di Marcello. He found it absurd that his thoughts still revolved around this woman, a fleeting train acquaintance, albeit attractive and with a certain air of decadence, which he liked.
Adjacent to the park Villa Belestra, he entered a residence where the Cavaliere had lived.
Along the streets were estates behind high gates, walls decorated with red tiles with cypresses stretching into the sky behind them. As it turned out, the cavaliere had used this apartment as a second home in Rome. He owned extensive vineyards near Cassino.
There was an art deco table in the room and a lamp that matched; hanging inside a gilt frame on the wall was the document of his knighthood awarded by the President of the Republic; on the buffet sat a calendar sponsored by an insurance company, an ashtray advertising a bank, a vase, a set of coffee cups, and, on shelves that lined two walls, piles and piles of dusty esoteric books which might never have been read, waiting there for doomsday.
Romano rummaged through a desk and found unopened letters, newspaper clippings, an ugly tie, a bottle of sleeping pills, some vasodilating medication, a golden wristwatch that was no longer running, cigarette ends. Tucked under a blotter were two folders, one marked ‘Cassino’ and the other marked ‘RI’, both empty. Somebody must have destroyed the contents.
He felt again the sensation of an eye watching him; like the heinous creature of Homeric epics, the Cyclops or in the ‘paradise’ of Dante before finding his beloved Beatrice as an apparition in her purple dress. It had accompanied him since he saw it on the gable in Piazza Garibaldi, it had become part of him. This eye, a companion on the path of mysterious circumstances, a dual companionship as a symbol and warning.
Suddenly he recalled Stephanie Wolf, the German nurse.
Could have Stephanie been able to make an injection in a professional, unsuspicious and soundless way?
He rang the hospital. She had taken a day off. Address? Data protection.
Romano was put through to the head of the department.
“Ah, Mr Fabri, you have checked yourself out on your own accord? The address of Wolf? No, we are not disclosing private addresses. In connection with a murder case? How can that be? You must produce a court order from your state attorney. Goodbye and have a good day.”
Fabri was fuming.
Was there a connection between these women and the dead, relations shrouded in dubiousness and questionability?
There was Manuela De Santis who had covered up for Ambros Vitale up to his death, Domenica Schiavone, and her connection to Dottore Sfondrini.
Stephanie Wolf and her ‘selfless’ help to provide a hiding place.
Contessa Cara Calucci, who had appeared unexpected, her blunt advance, her demi-monde aura, and the recent victim: Cavaliere Gian Alvise.
On his return to the Police headquarters, he passed by the address of the Contessa the third time. Was this more than a coincidence or a sign? He was tempted to drive to her apartment and ring her doorbell.
But he continued the way to his quarter, driven by his instinct and the hovering eye that accompanied him like the moon and the stars.
The dusk settled, creating a sensuality that enveloped the small cafés and restaurants in the suburb, which began to open their doors.
On his way up the ascending road, Fabri ran into Guiseppe, his neighbour, who was standing outside his shop for marroni cotti al vapore, steamed chestnuts and chestnut flour, pulling up the metal shutters. I am late,” he said, perhaps to break the silence.
He passed the trattoria owned by Domenica Schiavone. The door was locked, and the restaurant dark. A sign read ‘Closed on Wednesday’.
The small osterias and pizzerias lined up along the road, resembled a string of colourful beads.
Manuela De Santis’s Bistro was still closed but the note on the door promised an opening in an hour. There was a dim light shining in the vestibule.
Fabri directed his steps to the rear of the building where the storeroom, kitchen and private living area were located.
A window was lit up but covered by a curtain; he peered through a gap.
He saw Domenica Schiavone and Manuela De Santis in a tender embrace on the bed and they kissed and caressed passionately.
Fabri did not want to be a voyeur and turned away and left the backyard and knocked against a bucket causing a clang. A Ducati motorbike was parked near the wall. He felt a quivering in his body. There was a sticker on the rear “RI” and on the handlebar hung a helmet in black-orange design.
The discovery of evidence for the attempt on his life, but also the fear of being in close contact with his aggressors, people who wanted to kill him in cold blood, made him fall into a stupor from which he quickly recovered thanks to his survival instinct. He called the Questura and raised the alarm, a special unit was on the way.
He had barely gained distance from the living area and walked away with his back to the door when someone bumped into him from behind, causing Fabri to stumble forward and crash into the wall. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Domenica lunge at him like a fury. She lashed out, but Fabri saw her fist early enough, turned his head to the side, dodged the blow. Fabri tried to strike but missed. Someone grabbed him by the collar and yanked him backwards. Then a kick hit him in the knee joint and he kicked back, with rage and pain into someone, who cried out and cursed. He recognised Manuela’s voice. How could he buy time? These women were determined to wipe him out.
Should he run away, into the dark? That was his only rescue, he thought.
But by doing so, he would give them a chance to escape before the task force arrived.
He had no choice, he would have to run.”…by then, new blows followed – another kick in the back of the knee, he stumbled, fell; he struggled to get up again.
“Finish him off!” he heard Manuela say. “Finish him.”
Fabri jumped up and threw himself at Domenica. In a moment, the situation of fighting two half-naked Amazons appalled him. Then he got hit over the head – he saw stars, fell to the ground, he ran out of strength, then he heard sirens. They let him go, engines howled, he saw headlights, blue lights and rolled for cover.
Domenica and Manuela ran into the house.
He heard commands, felt dragged out of the danger zone. He saw red high-visibility waistcoats. Then he heard shots, machine-gun salvos, heard shouts: “They are shooting at us, everyone takes cover!”
A crouched officer approached Fabri. “How are you, can you speak, how many are there, identities?
“Two women, Domenica Schiavone and Manuela De Santis, one of them fired on me a week ago. Let me talk to them, I know them from this neighbourhood, they need to come to their senses, and we need to get them alive, there’s more to this.
I am the vice questore, Romano Fabri, here is my ID.”
“Sorry, Vice Questore, I did not recognise you”.
“I need a megaphone.”
The officer told a policeman to get him a megaphone.
Fabri propped himself against the wall and addressed the two women:
“Fabri speaking. Do you hear me? Give up, you don’t stand a chance.”
At that moment, the door yanked open and both women rushed out with Uzi submachine guns in their hands and opened fire. The police officer standing next to Fabri fell to the ground, hit by bullets. The task force answered the attack with massive fire and in seconds there was silence, the silence of death.
Dominica Schiavone and Manuela De Santis lay shot in their blood.
A grotesque image of two women in lingerie holding weapons.
He realised that he must have stepped on the snake’s tail, or it would not have bitten but also that he was no longer up to tough confrontations.
“Vice Questore, you have to go to the hospital, you have to be x-rayed, maybe you…” said one of the officers.
Unresisting, he allowed himself to be put on the stretcher. Relieved that all was over, he did not even feel the needle of the pain relief injection that the emergency doctor gave him.
There was a big thing running, he thought, as the rocking of ambulance lulled him, a very big thing.
* * *
The hand under his head was warm and soft. It lifted him gently, pushed a pillow underneath, then the hand let him sink back again, and Romano felt something warm against his ear.
A hand he wanted to hold. He struggled for breath, each breath he took was painful. Someone was standing next to him, looking down at him. He felt a warm, soft body, then someone kissed him on the forehead, a person at his bedside who smelled good. Then he heard a voice:
“Romano, who did this to you, I was looking for you, I was worried.”
She switched on the light.
There she was, this Nordic appearance, very well endowed, the blond hair formed into a cheeky style.
He grabbed her hand. “Happy to see you again, I tried to contact you. Sorry that I abandoned the hostel, I did not feel safe.”
He looked around. He did not like what he saw. Medical appliances.
“Stephanie, I might sound daft, but I have to get out of here. Subito!!!
Can you do me the favour again?”
She laughed: “You are paranoid. You are free to leave any time. The doctor will see you soon and decide on an x-ray or MRI.”
The doctor came in, she was a grey-haired tall woman, her appearance a bit like Christine Lagarde.
She asked him to undress.
Romano was a bit hesitant. His opinion was that male bodies were unaesthetic, ugly and repulsive.
“Come on, it is not the first time you undress in front of a woman,” she said. “Are you married?”
He shook his head.
“You need somebody to look after you. Look at your clothes.”
“It was women who were the cause of that,” he said huffily.
Romano managed to look down at himself, he looked at the tattered shirt, bloodstains, the torn trousers, scuffed knees. He was embarrassed and would have preferred to go back to the twilight state. Besides, he lisped with a bruised lip. He would have no desire to look into a mirror for the next few days.
Romano felt uncomfortable that Stephanie was looking intently at his body. And there was still his grandfather’s warning message. Was it still relevant for him who lived now in another time? Or was it the Italian inferiority complex? Ancient Romans, senators, had married blond Germanic women. ‘If you cannot defeat your enemies in battle, defeat them in love’.
After several examinations, the doctor concluded: “You are ok, only bruises, a few abrasions. Wait 15 minutes and you can go, do not drive, you are still under sedatives.”
* * *
The findings after the search of De Santis’s premises was more evident than an open book.
Weapons and plastic explosives hidden in disconnected deep freezers, in wooden wine boxes, the same as the empty and destroyed ones found in Schiavone’s cellar, this time full of weapons.
The origin of the wine crates was visible on the outside: It was the winery of vineyard owner Cavaliere Alvise.
Alvise must have gotten cold feet, was under pressure, or blackmailed or it had burdened his conscience, which lead him to contact Fabri and finally was the cause for his death, the death of a traitor before he could divulge secrets.
So, everything was open, unsolved, two perpetrators dead, a curtain closed but questions still unanswered.
* * *
He parked his car between the General Consulate of Brazil and the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone at Piazza Navona, a large, spacious square covered with cobblestones, an obelisk in the middle and with a sunny row of houses on the opposite side. He turned into the street of the same name as the church to reach Via di Tor Millina and walked along a grey wall, the side wing of the church. Somebody had sprayed “Dante is living” on the wall in yellow, a few meters further a graffiti in red: “God is dead.”
Not far from the door to the Contessa’s address, he took a seat at a table outside an osteria, the small tables covered with red and white checkered tablecloths. When he ordered an espresso and fettuccine alla Bolognese, the waiter looked at him suspiciously, for he looked tough, with plasters and abrasions on his face and sunglasses to hide the bruises. At the same time, his appearance also served as good camouflage.
Fabri enjoyed the warmth and the invigorating espresso and leaned back to wait for the food. An elegantly dressed man, also wearing sunglasses, stopped in front of the door to the Contessa’s apartment house, stepped close to the door into the shadow of the entrance and pressed the bell button. Fabri checked his watch. It was 17.30.
After half an hour, an old woman left the house, and a worker went in. The fettuccine was superb, and he ordered bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and basil and paid. It was 18.40 when the door opened and the elegantly dressed man stepped out and put on his sunglasses. At that moment, Fabri recognised the face of Dirigente generale Dr Enrico Forno, his superior, who turned quickly into the next street.
Fabri crossed the alley and looked at the doorplates. One of the signs read inconspicuously ‘C. Calucci’. He rang the bell which was immediately answered.
He climbed the stairs and heard the Contessa call out: “Enrico, have you forgotten something?”
He took another flight of stairs and reached the door. In the doorway stood a tall and handsome woman, the Contessa, in a black SS uniform, a leather jacket, which hardly covered her bare breasts, wearing leather boots and a cap with skull and crossbones.
“You,” she exclaimed startled, “Why…? What are you doing here? Why didn’t you call and make an appointment? I don’t have time now.”
“I only intended to visit you, being in the vicinity.”
“Do you have a costume ball here or a costume hire or did I miss Halloween?”
“Well, you are in SS uniform, that’s a bit unusual.”
“That’s customer preference, I dress the way my customers want me to.”
“OK, I see, I came at an inappropriate time, so, ciao, Contessa, until another time.”
She lifted her hand. “Ciao.”
Behind her, in the semi-darkness, hung a painting of Benito Mussolini.
The link to Forno was obvious. Another piece in the puzzle completing the picture.
When he left the house, the sunbeams painted an all-seeing eye on the wall.
It was a smiling eye.
Under the surface, always,
lurks something mysterious,
unknown, secret, horrible,
that is human nature:
hidden desires, vices,
into something unknown,
by unfulfilled wishes,
fantasies and longing
for the unattainable
to realise it within our limits.
Treason, cheating, deceit,
and with every heart-beat
a lie and an evil deed.
We only see faces,
not the thoughts behind it.
We read in the newspaper
of rape, murder, manslaughter,
fraud and looking into abysses,
when all has happened,
when it is too late.
From the time in Brooklyn, where Romano Fabri had spent a few months as part of an exchange programme between European and US police bodies, he remembered a lecture on Mafia structures, which were subdivided into ‘Associates’ at the bottom level, followed by the ‘Soldiers’, then raised to ‘Caporegime’ to gain the rank of ‘Underboss’ and ‘Boss’.
The telephone call from Cavaliere Alvise still in his ear, warning him of a conspiracy and complot by a new secret group, Fabri was wondering how this new clandestine organisation would be organised and their hierarchy structured.
It became evident, that all five protagonists, now dead, three killed as traitors, two shot, had been part of this group. The weapons, the connection to RI, the violence and cold-blooded ritual murders and the attempt on his life were the first pieces in a still obscure mosaic.
‘Associates’ could only move to a higher level if they had killed somebody. The same applied to the other ranks.
Schiavone and De Santis could have belonged to the rank equivalent to ‘associates’ and Sfondrini, Vitale and Alvise to the rank of ‘Soldiers’ or even ‘Capo’.
A close friend in the procuratore generale in Rome, one of his best and incorruptible allies, supported him in his view. He had a list of suspects in government and administration, who were to belong to secret circles and were under observation, among them Dr Enrico Forno, Fabri’s superior, a minister of the present government, el prefetto, the lord major, a police colonel, and the state attorney, a member of the Questura.
A draft of an organisation structure of this new group had been sent anonymously which read: Bottom level ‘Apprentice’, higher level ‘Venerable Master’, or Ven. Mistress, and as boss a ‘Most Venerable Master’ or Most Venerable Mistress.
Fabri laughed sarcastically: They were a step ahead in gender equality. Well, the feminine form of master would be mistress. When someone calls a lady a mistress, they refer to her as a person in charge of something, but a mistress is not always a lady.
It seemed a repeat of the failed coup d’état, Golpe Borghese, planned for the night of the 7th to the 8th December 1970, followed by police raids on meetings and a covert secret organisation which led on March 17, 1981 to the discovery of a list of 962 persons composed of Italian military officers and civil servants, including the heads of the three Italian secret services, involved in a conspiracy. A certain Lucio Gelli, Grand Master of the Propaganda Due was the head of subversive actions. Fabri remembered the murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro and the scandal around the corrupt prime minister Giulio Andreotti, the big spider in the net. The scandal of Banco Ambrosiano, the involvement of Archbishop Marcinkus, President of Vatican Bank, the ritual murder of the Banker Roberto Calvi in London…
Perfectly organised, all members, well established in high state positions, in police, economy and politics. To the outside, they had pretended to be respectable members of society.
One cell not knowing what the other is doing, organised like the ‘Ndrangheta or the IRA.
In a garden restaurant in a village outside Rome two men sat at a table engrossed in a discussion, Fabri and his friend had met late. His friend, code name ‘Signore Rosso’, told him that he was tipped off about a meeting of this group in Cassino. He had established a person undercover into the vicinity of the organisation who cared for the garden of a villa in Cassino and would provide the opportunity to bug a meeting scheduled for the next few days. They had used a passive resonant cavity bug, that could not be traced.
“We will have a great number of members, all under one roof, and we can close the bag. All roads lead to Rome, says the proverb, but one leads to Cassino,” said Rosso.
Fabri understood: Cavaliere Alvise hailed from Cassino and had owned extensive vineyards. The Contessa had entered the train in Cassino. Stephanie knew a hiding place in Cassino.
Fabri was not yet sure about her role in this mysterious story.
“Romano, this is not the mafia, with their usual predictable approach, we are dealing with something very dangerous: a secret society, fascist and corrupt, power-driven, a dangerous symbiosis.”
After the rush hour eased down, sergente Mario provided a neutral lead car. Fabri noted that Dr Forno had taken two days’ leave. The evidence and documentation vehicle had been organised by the procuratore generale. Three squad cars with a special task force joined up. Three prison buses followed at a safe distance, all cars were unmarked as private company cars, an ambulance car followed the convoy. They had arranged to meet for a short briefing near Frosinone.
The circle of insiders and the task force was hand-picked and secretive, nothing was allowed to leak into police or juridical circles, everything had to be watertight, the search warrants were signed by the procuratore, the State Security was informed. Members of this task force were connected with tap-proof wireless. They called themselves the ‘black squadron’, all were dressed in black with blue armbands to identify each other. They also wore black masks.
Fabri’s mobile rang. On the screen an unknown number but he pressed the green button.
“Who is speaking?”
“Me, Stephanie, I have to meet you, I have to talk to you, I have a confession to make, I am very afraid, also for you.”
“Where are you? At home? In the hospital?”
“No. Where we stopped in the Night of Saint Lawrence.”
“OK, I know, stay where you are, I’ll pick you up, hide, keep low profile.”
“I’m armed, I can defend myself. Take care of yourself.”
His head was spinning, he was confused, the events were now overwhelming him, the events have become like a tidal wave. What was she up to? Could he trust her?
Fabri sent a text message to his friend Signore Rosso and asked the sergente to drive him to the meeting point, the Autogrill Prenestina Ovest on the Autostrada del Sol which was on the way to Cassino.
It took them 20 minutes. A long 20 minutes for Fabri who was nervous and broke out in sweat.
Before their arrival, he gave Stephanie a ring. She said she would wait outside the exit.
Fabri was relieved when he saw her, she waved, Fabri left the car.
“First thing, hand me your weapon. We are the only ones who carry a weapon.”
He approached her carefully with a hand on his gun and stretched out his hand.
Stephanie handed him a Makarov and entered the car.
“What happened, pray tell us.”
“I have to start with my family. My grandfather was an SS-Brigadier leader and major general of the Waffen-SS with good connections to the Italian government. He spent five years in Italy and organised the police force, the OVRA, the Italian precursor of the German Gestapo. He was cooperating with the chief of the police Arturo Bocchini, called the ‘Vice Duce’.
My father was brought up after the war in the spirit of fascism. I was a member of right-wing youth organisations and spent my holidays with family friends in Italy and finally took the job at Gemelli Hospital after I finished my training in Rome.
I was part of Italian fascist organisations and respected because of my family history.
A year ago, I was approached by a Contessa Calucci and was made a member of the P3.
I became aware of murders of alleged traitors, the organisation of a coup d’état, arms trafficking, the infiltration of administrations of the police, and the military – until I realized what I was involved in and could no longer reconcile this with my conscience.
Here are lists and documents proving the conspiracy against the State and its institutions.” She handed a USB memory stick to Signore Rosso. “And I am ready to testify.”
“Thank you for your courage,”, Rosso said.
“It is a kind of reparation and penance for my guilt”, Stephanie replied. Her eyes filled with tears.
“There is a meeting this night in Cassino, in Villa Jaconelli. Do you know about it?”
After a short pause, Rosso smiled: “We are on the way, and you will accompany us. We cannot let you go. Sovrintendente Viola will take care of you.” A tall muscular woman stepped forward and pointed to the squad car.
Rosso inserted the USB memory stick into his laptop, he skims the contents, clicked on different files, scrolled up and down and looked at Fabri: “It looks like this corroborates all our evidence.
However, it can cost us our heads, we have people in high positions as targets. But we have now enough data to conduct a successful raid and make arrests.”
Fabri recalled that in 1981 the Italian parliament passed a law banning secret associations in Italy after all the failed coups, conspirations, secret organisations, political scandals in the last decades. It covered them legally.
They arrived at sunset in Cassino.
The city is known as the site of the Abbey and the Battle of Monte Cassino during World War II, which resulted in huge Allied and German casualties as well as the near total destruction of the town itself.
Local police authorities were deliberately kept uninformed to prevent information leaks in Cassino. It could be assumed that the local police had also members in or contacts within the organisation.
The abbey on the mountaintop could be seen from far; it gleamed in the ochre light of the sunset.
They drove to a suburb in the outskirts of Cassino.
An advance team had reported an arrival of cars with number plates from Rome, Milan, Florence, Bologna, Caserta. Forty-six people were counted, including seven women.
The opening of the meeting was scheduled for 7 pm.
It was 7.30.
Fabri and his sergeant drove through the streets near the villa to check the situation and then ordered the electronic surveillance van into position. The special forces were kept on standby.
It was still warm after sunset. Twenty-three degrees centigrade. A full moon appeared over the vineyards on the hills.
Wrought-iron gates and lattices separated the premises from the public road. A palm tree, probably about fifteen metres high, rose towards the sky like a monument.
Dead foliage hung from the mighty trunk, while from the top, the terminal bud, grew enormous fronds that swayed in the light breeze. A lemon tree pressed against a sloping wall. Dogs behind bars, suspicious guards, but they remained silent. The estate’s aristocratic origin was unmistakable. On everything lay the patina of a lifestyle to which the changing tides of history had caused no harm. A courtyard with large ashlars, wild figs, ancient stone vases, on the left, a single-storey mansion.
The lanterns came on in the streets, covering the silver glow of the moon with their yellowish light.
Flocks of crows, with deafening caws, continually flew out of the neighbouring treetops and back again to settle for the night.
Rosso, Fabri, sergente Mario, a constitutional protection officer, a wiretap specialist and the head of operations sat in the surveillance van.
They listened. Voices could be heard, some clear, others unclear.
It was 7.45.
Minutes of the last meetings were read. Very revealing. Rosso made notes. A lecture was given with subversive content.
Then some kind of initiation ritual followed. A hammering sound: tok tok …tok
Fabri had heard the knocks before. He remembered his recent nightmare.
A woman asked: Who is there?
Fabri and Stephanie were sure it was the voice of the Contessa.
A response, somewhat muffled, came from the background:
A candidate who has been well recommended, regularly proposed and approved and now comes, properly prepared, soliciting to be admitted to the privileges of our fraternity.
The candidate had to swear his oath of allegiance: Fabri’s hair stood on end.
I solemnly promise that I will not write our secrets, indite, carve, mark, engrave, or otherwise them delineate, or cause or suffer it to be so done by others, if in my power to prevent it, on anything, movable or immovable, under the canopy of Heaven. These several points I solemnly swear to observe, without evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation of any kind, in the certain knowledge that on the violation of any of them I shall suffer the full penalty which would await me until my latest hour, had I disclosed our secrets, by having the throat cut across, the tongue torn out by the root and buried in the sand of the sea at low-water mark or a cable’s length from the shore, where the tide regularly ebbs and flows twice in twenty-four hours, my left breast laid open, my heart torn therefrom, and given to the ravenous birds of the air, or devouring beasts from the field as a prey, and my bowels burned to ashes, and those ashes scattered over the face of the earth and wafted by the four cardinal winds of heaven, that no trace or remembrance of so vile a wretch might longer be found among men.
Then the fascist hymn Giovinezza (Youth) was sung:
Salve o popolo d’eroi
Salve o patria immortale
Hail, people of heroes,
Hail, immortal Fatherland…..
Rosso exclaimed: “I think that is sufficient. Attention, all ready. GO”.
Within seconds the door was opened with a duplicate key, then trampling could be heard on the stairs, the splintering of a door, the blinding light of stun grenades, shouts rang out “Policia”, screams…
Everyone present was ordered to put their hands behind their heads and kneel.
The police illuminated the semi-dark room with bright lights, weapons at the ready. Frightened faces looked at them.
On a kind of throne at the other end of a neoclassical meeting room sat the Contessa, who slowly rose with her hands raised. She stared at Fabri with hatred.
Candles on three tables, one in front of the Contessa and two at the right and left flickered in the draught.
As he passed Fabri, Dr Forno, held between two policemen, said, “You made a big mistake, you will regret it.”
Rosso took stock of the situation. He checked off the arrestees on his list. Identities were entered.
When the state attorney was led past Fabri, he said: “I can explain everything, Vice-Questore.”
“We will give you ample opportunity, procuratore”, Fabri smiled.
Rosso looked satisfied and nodded to Fabri.
Fabri and Rosso shook hands with his sergente Mario, with the constitutional protection officer, the wiretap specialist and the head of special operations.
“Great job, thank you for the support, we have brought the beast to its knees.”
Fabri turned to Stephanie and looked into her blue eyes. She looked bewildered and shocked. His feelings for her rekindled and blazed into a flame. He hugged her.
The doubts, the fear, the pressure of the last weeks fell off him. His grandfather’s warning had been proved wrong. Prejudices had not come true. She cried on his shoulder.
“I am glad it all worked out this way, stay with me and never leave me. Ti amo.”
“Ti amo anch’io, I love you too.”
She looked like a Germanic goddess. Her golden hair shone in the moonlight; the traces of tears adorned her pale face with silver lines.
The all-seeing eye faded and disappeared and the statue of Dante Alighieri in the yard looked down from his pedestal and smiled.
Below the surface
Stronzo: A common Italian insult is stronzo, which corresponds to “asshole” in English. It is widely used to indicate that somebody is a bad, cruel, despicable, and detestable person.
Trattoria: A trattoria is an Italian-style eating establishment that is generally much less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria.
Paolo Conte: an Italian singer, pianist, composer.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei…: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Dante: Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), was an Italian poet, writer, and philosopher.
Buona sera: Good evening
Vice Questore: Deputy Commissioner
Sergente: Sergeant, in the police, the assistant of a commissioner
Leonardo Sciascia; (8 January 1921 – 20 November 1989) was an Italian writer, novelist, essayist, playwright, and politician
On the surface
In Italy, a Questura is a police authority and a department of the Polizia di Stato. In almost all Italian provinces there is a Questura, headed by a Questore (“Quaestor”).
Guardia di Finanza is an Italian law enforcement agency under the authority of the Minister of Economy and Finance.
Fasces is a bound bundle of wooden rods, sometimes including an axe with its blade emerging. The fasces is an Italiansymbol that had its origin in the Etruscan civilization and was passed on to ancient Rome, where it symbolized a magistrate’s power and jurisdiction.
Procuratore State attorney
Procuratore Generale Highest state attorney
Polizia Politica Organisation similar to the Gestapo in Italy under Mussolini
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha- olam Start of a Jewish prayer over food and wine
Cassino is a comune in the province of Frosinone, Southern Italy, at the southern end of the region of Lazio, the last city of the Latin Valley, located at the foot of Monte Cairo near the confluence of the Gari and Liri rivers.
Frosinone is a town and comune in Lazio, central Italy, the administrative seat of the province of Frosinone.
Tempio Maggiore di Roma Synagogue of Rome
Dirigente generale di pubblica sicurezza Highest rank in the police
Floating to the surface
Parioli Parioli is among the first 15 quartieri of the city that were built beyond the Aurelian Walls, officially established in 1921.
Among the many noble villas in Rome, Villa Balestra is one of the less known and popular: it is hidden in the heart of the elegant and quiet Parioli district.
Benito Mussolini Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (29 July 1883 – 28 April 1945) was an Italian politician, a dictator of Italy and founder of fascism.
Hidden under the surface
Licio Gelli, Propaganda Due
As head of the Propaganda Due (P2) lodge, Gelli had ties with very high level personalities in Italy and abroad, in particular in Argentina, he was a close friend of Perón, and was also linked to the robbery of Juan Perón’s severed hands.
In 1992 Gelli was sentenced to 18 years and six months of prison after being found guilty of fraud concerning the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano in 1982 The Vatican bank, Istituto per le Opere di Religione, main share-holder of the Banco Ambrosiano, consequently had a “black hole” of $250 million.
“Giovinezza”– (Italian for ‘”Youth”‘) is the official hymn of the Italian National Fascist Party regime and was an unofficial national anthem of the Kingdom of Italy between 1924 and 1943.
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