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The small village of Morciano di Leuca on the southern tip of the region of Apulia in Italy is the unusual setting for a ritual murder. Valentina Medici is initially sedated, then dies due to loss of blood from cuts on her wrist. The victim's husband recognizes the same methods that were employed in the murder of his first wife, ten years beforehand. This link with the past is the initial point from where an investigation starts, led by Lecce police Commissario Luigi Gelsomino. Although he doesn't want to to believe it's a serial killing he's willing to change his mind if the evidence makes him. A thriller that unwinds from the seaside sunshine to the foggy northern Italian plains. A riddle wet in the blood spilt by a mysterious sect of young literati, among whom anyone could be guilty and no-one can be completely innocent.
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This novel is entirely the result of the author's imagination. Names and references to events, places and real people are to be considered incidental or, if real, used fictitiously.
In your blood
© 2015-2017 Marco Lugli
Translated by Clarissa A. Cassels
All you’ll be able to do will be
to watch your blood flow
your useless life draining away, drop by drop.
To my future wife, for her to be on her guard.
He looked back at his worn scraps of paper, lying side by side on the kitchen table. There were twelve of them. He knew them off by heart, but nevertheless he picked them up one by one. He wanted to be sure. His chest rocked back and forth due to the tension whilst the tips of his thumb and index fingers of both hands clutched onto each sheet. He read them all, reminding himself not to break any of the rules written on those squared scraps. He then collected them together again, leaving yet another sweat mark on the paper. He took his favorite book that opened on its own accord on the most read page, where he hid them, in Silence.
He left the house at 11:20, in time to see the faithful exiting San Quirino. She was on the pavement with her guitar slung over her shoulder, greeting friends. Her boyfriend stood beside her, holding her hand. As of every Sunday, they would say their good-byes, to meet again in the late afternoon. She would go home to prepare food for her mother who would then leave around two in the afternoon, to not miss the raffle at the bowling club.
After following them for several hundred meters and assuring himself that they would follow their usual routine, at ten past two he returned to the house and rang the bell. He smiled at the girl who opened the door, waited for her to reciprocate and tried to print that smile on his memory. He then kicked her between the legs, went into the house and closed the door behind him.
He noticed she ignored the pain of the suffered blow, concentrated instead on showing terror on her face. He also noticed that in the entrance hall, on the low cabinet on which everyone lay their house keys, there was the old rotary dial Siemens S62 phone. He grabbed it with his right hand, holding the handset close between the palm and the body unit. In bringing it upward and hitting it down on the temple of the girl, the three-prong plug broke away from the boss on the wall. He inserted it again, put the phone back in its place, took the girl by the armpits and dragged her into the living room. The interior design resembled that of his grandmother's house; lots of glass and silver ornaments, placed in the middle of pieces of crochet embroidery; furniture in lacquered wood, more old than antique. Lined velvet chairs and brass studs.
The girl moaned; she was regaining consciousness. He ignored her and instead finished studying the room. The curtain of the main window of the living room hid a massive cast iron radiator. He looked at the girl and back at the heater, sighed, then dragged her there, making her sit down with her back against the hot metal. With an effort, he pulled down the cord of the curtain, tied the girl firstly around the ankles, then the wrists, hooking them to the radiator return pipe.
He sat down in front of her. His wallet, tucked into the back pocket of his pants, created a bothering thickness between his buttocks and the floor. He slid it out and opened it, carefully removing the razor blade he had already been keeping in there for the past ten days. He used it to cut a strip of curtain, about forty centimeters in length. He stuck it in her gob, all crumpled up.
The difficulty in breathing woke her up completely. Facing her, he watched the expression on her face evolve in a few moments: from head pain, to disorientation, to the fear with which he had left her a few minutes earlier. She began staring at him with wide-open eyes, only occasionally lowering them to her mouth when swallowing became difficult, when the urge to retch distracted her from her main interest.
He held out his left hand, passed it through her hair, then turned his palms outward and caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers. In a vain attempt to keep as far away from him as possible, she twisted her head onto her right shoulder, squinting and turning the neck backwards. The jugular vein exposed itself to his gaze, pulsing in anguish. He slit it open with a quick gesture, precise, painless, holding the cutting edge between the fingers of the right hand like an artist's brush.
And then, just like an artist, he then stayed on for a while to watch his work.
I’ve written some pages through the years to remember the thoughts and emotions of some moments of my life. Today I collected them. They are all here in front of me, ready to be used. I don’t have a diary, only many scribbled sheets of paper that I have found in the drawers and gathered them in a single large file. They tell the prologue of an entirely real story, believe me, that still may happen.
If you are reading these lines, it means that the tale has come to its end. Maybe this also means that to tell it I have terminated my last literary fatigue. Or maybe, a hypothesis that I consider more likely, that in some recent or remote age this material ends up in the hands of a writer colleague who, with a bit of copying and pasting, some patching, the adding of an ending, hopefully real, wrapped and editorial production. In this moment in which everything is still potential energy, therefore, I cannot guarantee how the following pages will turn out to be.
Neither who the author may be.
I can only confess that if someone has told you that killing is always wrong, that person has no idea what he is talking about.
“Mrs. Fontana, in the report I must state everything that they stole.”
“Miss, please. Or Ispettore, if you prefer. You choose, but not Mrs.”
“Miss, can you make me a list?”
“Pretty much everything except the phone and panties. Documents, cards, keys, purse, clothes, towel.”
“Yes, it was on the sand and everything was on it. They made a bundle and carted it off.”
“I would need a precise list.”
“Yeah, I figured - I’ve already prepared it. There you are, with all the card numbers and documents. There is also a photo where you see the purse. I didn’t add the money, we won’t find it anyway.”
“All right, then I’ll copy the data from here. Listen, so you found yourself topless on the beach, if I understand correctly?”
“You said ‘everything except the phone and the panties’...”
“It was a euphemism. I was wearing a one-piece swimming costume. And fortunately I was not going to take a bath but only a walk on the seafront, so at least I had the phone with me. I called a friend who brought me a pair of flip flops and a sarong, just to get to her home.”
“Okay, then I’ll write: ‘wearing a swimming costume and with phone’.”
“Look, it's not important what I have left, but what they took away.”
“Ispettore, you lot tell me that it is better to be precise in our work, right? Keys, purse, you can’t even get into your house, then.”
“No, that I can do. My friend has the spare keys since I only come here for the holidays.”
“Oh yeah, and you were telling me you work in...”
“Modena. Modena Police Corps.”
“Have you proceeded in blocking the cards and changing the locks?”
“The cards yes, I did it right away. As for the lock, I’ll call someone on Monday. As it’s Friday night, I‘m not going to find anyone to do the job. Fortunately, there is my Modena address in the documents.”
“Okay. Look, we’ve written down here the description of the facts, as well as the list of objects, now I’m going to print the report, make you sign it, and we're done. We hope to find something.”
“I’m not counting on it too much, but ok. You have my number. Do I sign here?”
Luigi Gelsomino made himself comfortable on the chair across from the desk as he licked a plastic spoon. He had left very early from Lecce. Staying concentrated would have required an effort that he did not feel like making.
“All right Maresciallo, talk to me.”
“You needed it huh, Commissario? That coffee?”
“Yeah. Can you repeat your name, please?”
“Maresciallo Renna. Aldo Renna.”
“It doesn't sound as cool as “Bond, James Bond”, but it will have to do. Go ahead, Renna.”
The Maresciallo tried to smile, without success. Not as composed as Renna was Officer Colazzo standing behind him, who looked at him with an amused and cheeky air.
“So, Commissario, at 6:32 pm two days ago, on September 5th, the fire brigade at Lecce received this phone call.”
He clicked with the mouse and two speakers to the sides of the screen began to buzz.
“Fire station. Hello? How can we help?”
“It's happened again...”
“Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you.”
“What has happened again?”
“Ok, can you calm down and tell me what has happened to your wife.”
“This is the police, isn’t it?”
“No actually it isn’t, it’s the fire station. Don’t worry, if necessary we’ll notify the appropriate authorities, but you need to tell me now: where are you calling from? And what exactly has happened?”
“Are you telling me that your wife is dead?”
“Yes. I think so... Yes...”
“Are you in danger? Can we have your name, please? ”
“It’s Bernini; my name’s Bernini.”
“All right Mr. Bernini. Now try to calm down Mr. Bernini. Tell me whether you are in danger and where you are calling from.”
“I'm in the middle of her blood...”
“Try to calm down, Mr. Bernini. Where are you calling from?”
“From the B&B Capperi, in Morciano.”
“Bed & Breakfast Capperi In Morciano di Leuca? Can you confirm that for me?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“All right, Mr. Bernini, just stay where you are. A Carabinieri patrol is on its way.”
“A car rushed off from Salve police station at 18:50 and went to the site.”
“Twenty minutes later?”
“Commissario, there are six officers here with two cars. There were only two officers on shift at the time and they were in Presicce on a callout.”
Gelsomino thought of the big white building he had entered a few minutes earlier. Spread over three floors, from the outside it took a while to convince himself it was the Carabinieri police station of such a small town.
“Six people? But there must be about thirty rooms here...”
“If you were from the North, Commissario, I would even try to explain why. But since you come from Lecce, what’s the point of it?”
Gelsomino smiled. He was very attached to his province, but knew he wasn’t the most representative of its sons.
“We arrived at the bed & breakfast called ‘Capperi’ at about seven pm.”
Renna thumbed at his colleague who was still standing behind him.
“Officer Colazzo and I. We rang the bell, waited a bit, then the door clicked open. He hadn’t said anything on the intercom so we had to knock on the doors of the rooms on the ground floor. One of the guests told us that his room was on the first floor so we went up.”
The Commissario looked at the Maresciallo.
“Were you properly equipped with SOC clothing?”
“More or less. Not many things like this happen around here.”
“I can imagine.”
He pointed with his eyes at a sign of yellowed cardboard, hanging on the wall with tape. It broadly showed the types of blood stains that could be found at a crime scene.
“So you entered, and...?”
“And Bernini was sitting on the sofa on the ground floor. Near the intercom.”
“But didn’t you say that you were on the ground floor and then you went up to the apartment? How is it that you found him on the ground floor if you had already climbed the stairs?”
“Excuse me, Commissario, I am not explaining myself very well... The apartment consists of two rooms on two floors. The entrance to the apartment is actually the first floor.”
“I get it, go on then.”
“He was on the couch near the entrance. From there you can clearly see the stairs leading to the bedroom. On the steps and from the base of the staircase to the couch you could see the footsteps of bloody shoe-prints.”
“Did you go up?”
“Yes I did; I went up alone. Firstly I slipped on the overshoes. I also filmed my feet with the phone, so that my movements could have been retraced afterwards. As well as that I got Colazzo to take a video of my movements from where he was below. Damn, even if the stairs were full of prints someone had to go in and check if she was still alive.”
“You’ve been watching CSI, I see.”
“Did I do anything wrong, Commissario?”
“You could’ve done worse, I suppose. What can I say? It was brilliantly amateurish...”
Renna bowed his head sheepishly to hide a grimace of embarrassment. He collected himself and then continued.
“When I got to the top step I took even more care because the blood had already spread there from the floor. The corpse was on the bed, in a bathrobe, belly down. The veins of her right arm had been cut and the arm was hanging down on one side, very close to the top of the ladder. You'll see, the room is set out in a strange way.”
Gelsomino shook his head slightly.
“What do you mean, “strange”?”
“Well; there is no door as such, only a low wall, so from the step you can easily see the whole scene. So I stretched across to feel her pulse without having to put my foot onto the floor of the room. There was no pulse, the arm wasn’t cold but it wasn’t that warm either, so I realized that there was nothing to do and I went downstairs. I got Bernini to remove his shoes, put them in a bag and then got him to leave the apartment.”
“Oh Commissario, what was I supposed to do?”
“You could have carried him, Maresciallo.”
Gelsomino struggled not to laugh.
“Are these the photographs of the scene?”
“Yes they are; forensics arrived - it must have been gone nine by then and they took them.”
“Where did forensics come from?”
“They were the ones from Lecce.”
“Ok. I’ve got the picture. What can you tell me about this Bernini?”
Renna took a notepad from his desk, licked his finger and started flicking through the pages.
“Paolo Bernini is a writer from Carpi, in the province of Modena. I can’t say how famous he is. He lives in Morciano, or rather lived, with his wife who had this B&B called Capperi, it must be a couple of years since they opened. A few rooms and a couple of holiday apartments. No reported problems or warnings. The neighbors say they’re nice people.”
“What do we know about her?”
“Valentina Medici; she is also from Carpi. She was an architect, but from what I understand she was mainly busy with the B&B. We are trying to identify all her customers. Her architect clients, I mean, to see if there's someone we know. You know how it is, with the construction industry you can never be safe.”
“They’ve had the body since yesterday morning. That’s all I can say.”
“Did they take her to Lecce?”
“No, they didn’t; they took her to Bari, to the Institute of Legal Medicine.”
“Ah, to Dr. Frisco, very good. Where is he?”
“Who, this Frisco? I do not know. I don’t even know who he is.”
“No; not him - the husband, Bernini.”
“Ah - well, he’s at home - actually no, he isn’t; he’s in one of the apartments they rent out in that building. The guests have all gone.”
“Strange. Not one morbid busybody that wants to remain at the crime scene?”
“It was Mrs. Bernini who cooked and prepared breakfast, so...”
“I was kidding, Maresciallo. If they hadn’t left on their own accord you would have sent them off, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course, Commissario.”
“Exactly. So, this is what we’ll do; I want Bernini here today after lunch.”
“Okay, I’ll send him a summons.”
“No, nothing formal, but I need to talk to him as soon as possible.”
“Ok, I'll simply ask him if he can drop in, then.”
“Yes… Maybe… Look, Maresciallo, there isn’t a police station in Morciano, is there?”
“No, there isn’t Commissario. Why are you asking?”
“Because I wouldn’t mind having my investigating office nearer to where it all happened. Old street cop habits.”
“Well, there used to be an old Carabinieri station there. It’s not manned anymore, although we still store old stuff there and the telephone line is still connected. We can easily tidy the place up a bit.”
“I would need two or three desks, each with a telephone and a computer, is that possible?”
“I think so. Is someone else coming from Lecce?”
“Well, I will need someone to give me a hand, yes. But I don’t think it’s necessary to get someone to come from Lecce, as long as you’re available.”
Renna's eyes widened in surprise.
“Me? Is that allowed?”
“Let's make a phone call to the top and ask. If you don’t mind working with a police Commissario, that is.”
“Me? No, of course not.”
“Fine, then. Oh, one more thing; I'm not going to go back and forth from Lecce, at least in these early days. Can you help me find a place to sleep?”
“You could sleep at Bernini’s B&B.”
“What? Are you pulling my leg?”
“No, sorry. This time it’s me who’s kidding, Commissario.”
Gelsomino looked at him sternly.
“Maresciallo... Go and talk to Bernini. Meanwhile, I’ll make a phone call.”
Gelsomino waited for Renna to go out into the hallway, then from his cell phone he dialed his wife's number. He had been married for twenty-five years and telling her that he would be staying away from home for a few days would not be a problem.
“Hey. Yes, I’ve arrived. I haven’t yet seen anyone except the Maresciallo who’s going to give me a hand. But yeah, he seems fine. Perhaps a little simple-minded, but ok. You know, I don’t mind folks here in the countryside. I mock them a bit but deep down I envy them. And you? Ah ok. All right. Yes, in fact that's why I called you. At least these first few nights, until I’ve formed an idea of the people and how things went. You think you can sleep without me? Funny... Try to, if you can.”
Someone knocked at the door.
“Someone’s at the door, I’ll have to ring off… yes, me too. Have a nice day.”
It was Colazzo, the other officer.
“Commissario, would you like a coffee? Do you need anything?”
“I'm fine, thank you. Actually - no. Come here a moment, please. Renna made me listen to a recording of Bernini’s phone call. It was here, somewhere on the screen but now I don’t know where to get it…”
“The screensaver has started running, so now you need the password… There it is. Done. If it happens again, you need to type ‘Bari shit’.”
“Of course. I could have guessed that myself.”
Renna returned half an hour later. He crossed paths with Colazzo in the hallway.
“Is the Commissario still there?”
“Yes; he’s in the office.”
“What do you think?”
Colazzo lifted his chin in resignation and Renna passed on. Before entering the room where Gelsomino was, he hoped that the coffee had helped to make him less irascible.
“I’ve booked a room at the hotel in the main street. There’s a place across the street that does food. Would that suit you?”
“I’ve also seen Bernini. He’s coming here at four.”
“And what do we do until then?”
“Don’t you want to rest a bit after lunch?”
“Maresciallo, the sooner we finish here the sooner I will rest again in my bed. Now - I have been listening again to the recording of the phone call, here on your computer. There's this thing he says at the beginning... listen to this.”
“Fire station. Hello? How can we help?”
“It's happened again...”
“Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you.”
“What has happened again?”
“Then he doesn’t answer. Any idea what he meant?”
“Do you mean when he says that it’s happened again? No, I have no idea, however, on a website I read that he was a widower, maybe that’s it.”
“On a website?”
“When they told me that a Commissario was arriving from Lecce I didn’t feel it was right for me to question him so I googled him.”
“I see. Find out some further information from sources that we can verify, please. Meanwhile I’m going to the B&B to have a look at the room where the victim was found. I’ll find Bernini there, won’t I?”
“No - actually you won’t; when I said he had moved to another apartment there in the Capperi I was wrong. At the entrance there’s a sign saying that you could find him at the Hotel Lido Venere or down on the sea at the Posto Vecchio. So I called him and he told me he didn’t feel like staying at the B&B. He also said that today he was going to bring a list of clothes and things he would need to take from his home, as soon as possible.”
“Well, I’m going. Ah, we’ll also need to talk to forensics and I particularly need their report. Talk to them to see when they think they can send something.”
He stood up, picked up the Capperi keys and went out.
Renna wondered if it had been a good idea of the Commissario’s to have entrusted him with helping him in the case.
In a street behind the Castle of Morciano, a beautiful private building inhabited by a sort of hermit who concedes to having visits only once a year, stood the B&B Capperi, easily identifiable by a small wooden sign. The Commissario looked at that name with the two exclamation points at the end, and hinted a smile. The front of the B&B, renovated to expose the original tuff, contrasted a bit with the rundown surrounding buildings.
As soon he crossed the doorstep, Gelsomino was pleasantly impressed by the clean lines and the charm of the vaulted ceilings beneath which a reception area had been renovated. He went on, leaving to his right an old wooden table which he assumed had probably once been used for gambling, and to his left a white brick sofa with beige cushions. On both pieces of furniture and on the floor the dust that had settled over the past two days was already noticeable. He took a few more steps towards the center of the room. On the right wall, behind the reception desk, a frame containing a white sheet of paper of Valentina Medici’s professional qualification stood out from the yellow tuff background. The touch of a woman architect was evident throughout the whole room.
At the end, a corridor led to a small courtyard. Thanks to the map of the building that he had found in the dossier and to the names Intra and Fore visible above the beams, Gelsomino identified the two doors overlooking the courtyard as the entrances to a room and to one of the rented apartments. A gate protected the stairs that lead to the basement cellar. To access Bernini’s apartment, it was necessary to make a few more steps into the courtyard and up a flight of stairs. On the balcony of the first floor there were two entrances: the apartment flats of Addai and the Acquai, which was the one that had been inhabited by the Bernini spouses.
Gelsomino gazed at the name on the door and smiled again. Like the others, it was painted by hand on a terracotta tile pasted onto the lintel. They were all terms of southern Salento: ‘Inside’ - ‘Outside’ - ‘That Way’ - ‘This Way,’ The other two rooms, according to the plan, were called Susu and Sutta: ‘Over’ and ‘Under’. The idea pleased him very much. It made him think of the serenity that must have reigned in that place until a few hours before.
“Okay,” he whispered to himself. “ Acquai. This way.”
He put on the overshoes and the latex gloves that he had kept in his pocket and went on in. He stopped a step inside the door, switching the light on. From the folder he was carrying, he drew out the pictures taken by forensics and the report containing the first visual observations made upon arrival at the crime scene.
On the floor, clearly visible footprints walked from the stairway that lead to the upper floor, which was positioned along the right wall. The tracks came up exactly next to him, at the intercom. From there they headed to the nearby couch which, like the intercom, had signs of blood in the shape of palms of hands and fingers.
He imagined the scene. Renna and Colazzo ring the bell. Bernini comes down from the bedroom, where his wife’s corpse is. Where he must have dirtied his hands and feet with her blood. He opens the B&B main door by pressing the button on the intercom and sits on the couch. Renna then would make him remove his shoes to put them in an evidence bag to be examined. This explained the lack of other footprints from the sofa to the exit.
The cooking area of the apartment extended from just after the front door along the left wall. Against the wall opposite the entrance stood the TV table stand, some cabinets and a desk for a computer with a rather large screen. Continuing towards the stairs, Gelsomino passed right by the latter and turned it on. It did not take long for the names of Paolo and Valentina to appear on the screen. He clicked on the first one. When prompted for a password, he went back and tried the second. Same thing. He clicked on the shutdown icon. He would have to get the password from Bernini in the afternoon. He began his way up the stairs, careful not to step on the bloody footprints.
The last step, on the right, led into the bedroom. As Renna had said, the wall that divided the staircase from the room was just a meter-twenty high and served as a headboard. Standing on the top step, therefore, you had a wide view of the entire room. The bedside table, in particular, was there at his feet, just around the corner. He could touch the mattress from where he was, by stretching out his torso and hand. The same movement that Renna had made to feel the pulse of the victim.
The reason why Paolo Bernini had said “I'm in the middle of her blood...” was immediately clear. The victim had been found on that side of the bed with the right arm, the one with the slashed veins, hanging down forty centimeters from the beginning of the stairs. The pool of blood had thus spread out across almost all that part of the floor. It wasn’t unblemished, crossed by the sign of a slip, some slaps and more or less clear footprints.
It seemed to be clear what had happened. Bernini had gone up the stairs, then he had put his foot on the floor of the room in the middle of the puddle and slipped to the floor. He must have been there during and after the call to the fire brigade because there were no other stains from bloody shoes beyond the pool.
Staying on the top step, Gelsomino looked at the photos that were taken from that observation point. The woman was dressed only in her robe and had her head turned away, toward the center of the bed, her blond hair lay on the pillow. At least, he thought with a tremor of emotion, Bernini didn’t have to look into the lifeless eyes of his dead wife during his petrified halt on the bloodstained floor.
Gelsomino realized for the first time that he had been summoned from Lecce to investigate a murder case, yet no one had yet explained to him the reason why the possibility of suicide had been dismissed.
Placing his toes in the few areas of the floor that were free of dried blood, he reached the center of the room, at the end of the bed. He looked at the pictures taken from that point. The woman's face seemed relaxed, as well as the whole body lying in an unnatural position of total relaxation. Sure, she could have cut her veins alone, but where was the blade? If she had cut herself in the bathroom, thrown the razor blade into the drain and gone to bed, she would have left splashes of blood everywhere, all the way to the bed. But there was no trace either of the blade or of any blood, with the exception of the main pool.
The preliminary report spoke of signs of forced entry through the French windows overlooking the terrace and of fibers of fabric found on the fence that separated the property from the neighbor's roof. He abandoned the observation of the bed, heading to the back of the room, towards the French windows. The bathroom was to his right, but he ignored it. He searched for signs of a forced entry. At first there was nothing clearly obvious on the fixtures. If they hadn’t told him, he wouldn’t have noticed. As it was, he realized that the ejector spring lock had indeed lost power, and the door opened to the minimum pressure.
He went out onto the terrace. A typical Salento living roof had been redesigned with a simple raising of the perimeter walls. Arranged on two levels, it bordered with the roof of the house adjacent to the B&B. It was an abandoned and unsafe building that Gelsomino had already noticed from the street. Perhaps for this reason a wire fence had been installed to divide the two properties. The building was, however, easy to access and the net was deformed at one point, suggesting that the murderer had entered the property from the street: getting onto the roof, he would have climbed over the mesh and forced the lock to the door that gave on to the bedroom. The report mentioned that the mesh had been strained, as if it had been subjected to a heavy load, and metal threads had been found on the corners of the fence.
This is all he could do for the moment. He needed the autopsy report and the forensic analysis to return to those rooms and observe the scene under new viewpoints. He turned his attention away from the fence, and looked around, taking in a 360° view of the surroundings. The typical southern Salento landscape made of white roofs, clothes hanging in the wind and television antennas stretched all the way south to the sea. Getting lost in the sun beyond the houses of Salve in the west, it merged with the horizon at the ridge that separates Morciano from Barbarano del Capo to the north and Patù to the east. He loved that scene. The brilliance of the light, drifting in the wind and fixed by time.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Valentina asked me this only once in 2010, yet I always look at her that way when she comes next to me with the expression of someone who wants cuddles. I look at her this way because I’m trying to understand how is it possible that I have fallen in love again. Or how it is that I don’t feel guilty. I look at her and I think of the twists of fate. Of how far from guessing the truth I would have been if, at the time when I met Francesca and her, I would have tried to guess any future that could combine us.
Francesca would bless us from up there. Francesca loved me, therefore she would bless us. Now it is the two of us to love each other and she would say: “Be happy.” I'm sure of it.
“I look at you this way because I think about how many things could have gone differently. Think about how many details, connections, how many decisions about how many life crossings have had to slot in and link just the way they slotted in and linked for you to be here now?”
“Are you sad?”
She asked because she knew that one of the phases of the random path of events had been Francesca’s death. But I was not sad at all. I had been sad, of course, but now I was happy. I told her. I explained to her my thoughts and my happiness. The way in which we could live with one another. She let it go because she never came back to the subject.
This is where Valentina's greatness lies, in her simplicity of accepting things. Viewpoints, other people’s actions. People are not like this, usually. Some people don’t accept, others argue, some investigate, others dig, dissect, bare or attack. Valentina has this gift to take everything in the simplest way. She takes it and thus offers it. If you want to accept it, the better for you, you will simplify your life yourself.
We were not yet married when she asked me that question for the first and last time. We would have done so the following year. Not long after, therefore, however at that time I wouldn’t have even guessed that future. I was merry and in love. Changes relating to my life simply would not come to mind. And then, one grows and thinks of marriage as an event that needs to happen only once during one’s existence. I had already come to that conclusion years before. It went how it had to go - ok, but the step had been taken. I had put the X in the box. His affair with Valentina was important and beautiful as it was, without the need to seal it with a wedding. But when she then asked me, in the way she asked me, what else could I have answered if not with a “Yes”? Wasn’t that idea that she came up with the simplest and most natural thing? I then married her, so it must have been so for me too.
Paolo Bernini arrived on time at the Salve Carabinieri police station. Gelsomino let Maresciallo Renna occupy the chair behind the desk. After shaking hands with Bernini and pointing him to make himself comfortable on one of the two guest chairs, Bernini took one and Gelsomino took the one next to him.
Bernini was forty-five. He was a skinny and sporty guy but the damp cold handshake and facial expression revealed his state of exhaustion. He kept his eyes down, as if he was wondering what was under the desk. Gelsomino watched him for a few seconds, then spoke up:
“Mr. Bernini, did you kill your wife?”
The friendly smile that Renna had kept on his face since the entry of the man disappeared instantly, giving way to a dazed expression underlined by the open mouth. Bernini looked up and gazed steadily into the Commissario’s eyes. A single, very slow blink of his eyelash preceded his response.
Renna glanced swiftly between the faces across from him. He could not decide who was the more nonsensical of the two of them.
“Did you know I was expecting this answer?”
“If a... what are you? A Commissario?”
“I am a Commissario - head of police.”
Bernini offered: “If a Commissario starts an interview with the husband of a person who’s just died in that way, I also believe that you deserve a yes. You deserve that and much more.”
“And what would that be?”
“How about telling you to fuck off?”
Renna almost jumped out of his chair.
“Mr. Bernini, I must remind you that...”
“It’s all right, Maresciallo - Mr. Bernini, I am sure that that would’ve been an acceptable answer to my provocation. You seemed a bit absent and I needed your attention. Now I believe I have it and, before Maresciallo Renna has a heart attack, I will repeat the question. Did you kill Mrs. Valentina Medici?”
Bernini’s answer was determined and dry.
“No, sir. I did not kill anyone.”
“Fine; see Maresciallo? Now we have got things smoothed out we can move onto the real questions. Do you both agree?”
An annoyed sign of confirmation came from both sides.
“Do you feel up to telling us when you found your wife, Mr. Bernini?”
The man waited the time to take two breaths, then nodded.
“When I entered the apartment, the light was on. I called Valentina but she didn’t answer. I thought she must’ve been in the bathroom or on the roof hanging out the washing. I had left the shopping bags in the hall downstairs, so I went down again to put the things away. It took me a while because we keep most of the groceries and stuff for the B&B in the basement or in the pantry at the entrance, where we serve breakfast. I did a few trips up and down the cellar stairs. Then went back up to our place with the last bag.”
“Did you say shopping bags?”
“Yes, I had been to the Metro supermarket in Lecce to get some things for the B&B. For breakfast, cleaning products, glassware. The usual.”
“So you had just got back to the B&B when you entered your apartment?.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Do you remember how long you were away?”
“No, but I can suppose. Three hours. Maybe three and a half.”
“Ok, so did you then go straight upstairs, to the bedroom?”
“Yes. I called Valentina again. She didn’t answer, so I went up to the bedroom. I remember that I went up almost running. My memory is a bit confused but I have thought back a thousand times about those few seconds… I believe I ran up those stairs - yes, I did! It all happened in a flash… I saw Valentina, and the next thing I fell down. I fell because I wasn’t looking where I was going. I saw Valentina when I was still coming up the stairs, I think. This is the explanation I give myself, but if I’ve got to tell you only what I remember... I did the stairs and when I saw Valentina lying on the bed I was already lying on the floor and my hip was hurting like hell. The fingers of her hands seemed very long, the blood had dried but it was as if it was still wet. I leaned over to touch her and when I looked at my hand I saw it was wet and sticky with blood.”
“And then, at that point, you made the phone call?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Gelsomino followed Bernini’s chin as it almost leaned on his chest in a kind of rueful bow. He was now able to see the scene of the crime before him even more poignantly than how he had imagined it before, in the bedroom. He concentrated, trying to clear his mind.
“When did you see your wife for the last time?”
“Valentina and I were waiting for the cleaning lady to finish doing the rooms. We usually prepare lunch afterwards, but Valentina wanted to go for a run. She changed and went out for about an hour. It must have been 1 pm. I prepared a salad, eat a little and put the rest of it into the fridge for her. When she returned she went to take a shower. I waited for her to come out of the bathroom and when she did I left. That day a couple of clients were supposed to arrive and someone’s always got to be around in the building.”
“So she got back around two pm and after about fifteen minutes you went out? Is that it?”
“I would say a little later. Valentina did a bit of stretching and then she dried her hair... It could have already been three o’clock when I went out.”
“The call to emergency services?” Interrupted Renna “At what time was that? ”
Gelsomino answered for him;“It was at 6:32 pm, I remember. The times add up, in fact. Was that the last moment when you saw your wife? I mean... When you last saw her alive.”
“Yes, it was.”
“Did you make a phone call or use a phone while you were out?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“There was another thing I wanted to ask you, but it escapes me now. Renna, what was the query that came up this morning?”
“Are you referring to what he said at the beginning of the phone call?”
“Yes; that was it. Mr. Bernini, we listened to your phone call to the fire brigade. By the way, why did you call 112 and not the State Police on 113?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t mean to call them. I thought I had dialed 112.”
“Of course, that’s understandable; the digits are very close. I was saying that we listened to your phone call and at one point you say something unusual - what was it, Renna?”
“ ‘It's happened again.’ ”
“That’s right. “ ‘ It's happened again.’ What were you referring to?”
For the second time, Bernini looked down. His Adam's Apple jumped with a firm snap. He seemed to crumple into himself His left hand ended up folded into the right armpit, as the right hand began to move through his hair.
“Mr. Bernini, are you feeling all right? Maresciallo, go and get Colazzo to bring a glass of water, please.”
“I was referring to Francesca. My first wife.”
“Yes, the Maresciallo told me that you were a widower when you married Mrs. Medici. Is this what you were referring to? To the fact that you were losing your partner again?”
“Don’t you know how Francesca died?”
Gelsomino glanced quickly and sharply at Maresciallo Renna.
“Is there something we should know?”
“The same thing happened.”
“Do you mean she was murdered?”
“Yes I do, but not only she was murdered; she was murdered in the same way. Francesca was on the bed, face down, with the veins of her arm slit open ”
At that moment, Colazzo entered with a bottle of water and some glasses.
“Take a sip” offered Renna.
Bernini's eyes were shiny. His face, however, showed something other than pain. His expression was more like fear.
Renna proffered the glass under Bernini’s nose and he took it. He took such a weak sip it seemed to suggest that he had done so more out of respect for the Maresciallo’s kindness rather than from necessity.
Renna looked at the Commissario, who rolled his eyes in an attempt to make him understand that perhaps it was time to finish.
Gelsomino failed to take the hint: “One last thing, Mr. Bernini. After the phone call to the fire brigade, do you remember what you did? Did you move? Did you make any other calls? Did you touch anything? Whatever you remember - anything that comes to mind, may be important. You see, we need to separate the prints of your movements from those of anyone who might‘ve entered the house.”
“I remember that I wanted to see her face. I knew she was dead, there was so much blood everywhere, but I felt I could not be sure unless I looked into her eyes. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. All that blood around me... It was a kind of fence, a cage I couldn’t get out of. It was her, wasn’t it? It was her blood, it was her. I didn’t know how to move without stepping on her. I couldn’t touch her but it was as if I was crushing her. It was... It was... Terrible. I know it's mad to think like that.”
“Don’t worry about it, I understand… So as far as you remember, you don’t think moved or touched anything.”
“No, I didn’t. That is, not until I heard the intercom ringing. It was like an alarm clock. I don’t even know how much time went by.”
“You mean when Maresciallo Renna and the other officer arrived?”
“Yes, that’s right - I got up then I remember. I got up and went downstairs to answer the door.”
“All right. I think that is enough for today. We don’t want to bother you too much right now. You realize, however, that we’ll need to talk to you again, now even more so, after what you’ve just told us about your first wife. So feel free to go back to the hotel but don’t leave the area, and keep us informed of your movements, so we know when we can call again, all right?”
“Ok, all right.”
Gelsomino spent a minute in silence staring at the door that Bernini had closed behind him. Renna respected his concentration for a while, then got up to clear the glasses from the desk.
“How embarrassing” Gelsomino said to himself. “Maresciallo, track down the people who dealt with the case of Bernini’s first wife. I want to speak to them. And send them a copy of the dossier. Then we should get hold of any CCTV footage from the Lecce Metro supermarket cameras and check the time when Bernini entered and left from there. Not that it changes anything, since we don’t have a time of death, but it must be done anyway... Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Commissario, can you explain to me what took over you earlier? I mean at the beginning, when you asked out of the blue if he had killed his wife -how can you ask a question like that? Well, I mean, not that you can’t, in the end we can’t exclude anyone yet, but in that manner...”
“Tell me, Maresciallo, how did you feel for Paolo Bernini when you found him on the couch of his home, with his hands and his feet covered in blood? When you had to remove his shoes yourself because he seemed too shocked to do it alone? When you climbed up the stairs and sensed that he had slipped into the blood of the person he loved, or at least that we assume he loved. Eh? Didn’t you feel a bit of sympathy?”
Renna confirmed that he did with a movement of his head. His brow furrowed, however, showing he still did not understand.
“Exactly. You can’t avoid having some pity for him. But I can’t stand it when that happens. I can’t afford to feel sympathetic towards someone I have to investigate. I can’t afford to let that sentiment distract me from the disdain I should be feeling in case he is the culprit. And the best way to prevent that from happening is to not encourage that person to have any empathy for you, have no pity for him and not to trust a word he says.”
“I don’t understand. Did you ask him that question because you wanted him to dislike you?”
“Are these the new investigative methods they are now teaching up in the city?”
“No, they aren’t, they’re only mine.”
Listen to me, said the Demon, as he placed his hand upon my head.
I'm pretty sure everything originates from Poe’s phrase. I am not surprised, after all I was only sixteen. The Evil that rests with a kind gesture, as if in blessing, his palm on the head of a man, penetrated my teenager’s fertile imagination with the ease of a knife into flesh, as only a successful contrast can do.
I re-read the opening words of the story, I admire it’s prophetic genius, seizing undertones that only years of study now allow me to grasp, but it's that contrast that still today strikes me and makes me wonder.
Listen to me, said the Demon, as he placed his hand upon my head.
The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire. And there is no quiet there, nor silence.
The waters of the river have a saffron and sickly hue; and they flow not onwards to the sea, but palpitate forever and forever beneath the red eye of the sun with a tumultuous and convulsive motion. For many miles on either side of the river's oozy bed is a pale desert of gigantic water-lilies. They sigh one unto the other in that solitude, and stretch towards the heaven their long ghastly necks, and nod to and fro their everlasting heads. And there is an indistinct murmur which cometh out from among them like the rushing of subterrene water. And they sigh one unto the other.
Each age has its language, it’s allegoric images, its metaphors. Instruments that have evolved in time little by little as the indicator of amazement and emotion moved upwards. Maybe, in the instant in which I read that phrase for the first time, I only had an adolescent fascination for the forbidden, for the scary and the macabre. But I am certain that already at the end of the story I had understood that the contrast expressed in that phrase had a power that I too wanted to reach. It was the result of a research to which I too wanted to contribute.
Maresciallo Renna had just returned to the police station. From the switchboard they made him a sign that there was a call for him. They put it through to him on a second telephone there by the entrance.
“Good Evening, this is Ispettore Anna Fontana. Am I speaking to Maresciallo Aldo Renna?”
“Yes; that’s me, good evening.”
“Hello - I’ve just received a call from my boss in Modena telling me to get in touch with you.”
“Ah, I see. You must be the Ispettore who was in charge of the investigation into the death of Francesca Quarta in 2005.”
“Yes, that’s quite correct; I am.”
“We need to talk to you concerning a case we are dealing with at the moment. Your superior told me that you are, by co-incidence, down here in Gallipoli...”
“I see. Commissario Gelsomino, who is here from Lecce, asked me to arrange a meeting. If you could be here in Salve tomorrow, it would be great.”
“It’s not very convenient; can you tell me what this is all about? As it is, three days ago, on the beach, someone nicked from me, among a thousand other things, the keys to my car. I don’t carry that card they to use to cut duplicates, so I'm not sure when I will be able to drive.”
“Look, this problem can be fixed. I can come to Gallipoli to pick you up. As for the case, I'd rather have the Commissario explain everything. You know how it is, he is the one who leads investigations, we at the Salve police station are only collaborators at his disposal.”
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