Thin Ice - Stefano Pastor - ebook
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A flash kidnapping, but the ransom demanded is too small. Michele, aesthetic surgeon, has no doubt: this is a joke. Of course he is sure that a child was calling, his son Andrea could not have been really kidnapped. Soon doubts arise: that Andrea was not the first kidnapping in similar circumstances. Already, other children have disappeared and only those who paid the ransom could re-embrace their families. Who has not done that has not seen them anymore. Despite the contrary opinion of his wife he calls the police, determined to set a trap for the kidnappers. Whether they are children is beyond doubt, but who is maneuvering them and why? Are they really casual abductions or they follow a pattern? When the ransom is withdrawn by a young girl they think to be one step away from the solution, they do not realize a chess match with an implacable opponent is just started.

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Illusion Novel # 11

Original title: Ghiaccio sottile

Translated by Manuel Cecconi

© 2018 Illusion

© 2016 Stefano Pastor

Graphics: Angela M.

All rights reserved

Prologue

“Come on, let’s do this, I’ll come to you at three o’clock, you said that at that time your parents are gone, right? I take everything. We are free until six o’clock. There is time for a couple of games, even three. We just take out the books before they arrive.”

As a proposal it was fine, except for one point. “Tomorrow we have oral test, did you forget?”

Ale had no problems. “So, it’s not said they will call us! We are twenty in class, right? There are quite a few with worst votes than us; it is them who must tremble.”

Flawless. “But don’t know anything at all…”

“We know something, come on, and don’t overstate it.”

Andrea drew a long breath, very theatrical, as to mean that was not his situation.

“At five o’clock, then,” said Ale. “We start to study a little earlier, is that better?”

“I know how it ends, we don’t ever manage to. Once it starts it is hard to stop.”

Ale burst out laughing. “That’s your problem.”

Andrea was very tempted; he had not much desire to spend the afternoon on school books, especially because it would be left alone in the house. He wouldn’t have done anything; he knew it was better to have fun with Ale. And then the friend was right, the chances to have oral exam were scarce. But Manni was always able to catch those less prepared on tests; it looks like he had radar to intercept them.

“Come on then, but wait that my parents are gone. They are not stupid; if they see you they will understand immediately what we planned to do.”

Ale gave him an angelic look. “What you say? Your parents adore me, they trust me.”

He had a point, that pimp had a natural ability to ingratiate himself with the mothers of all his friends. Andrea envied him a little, he was bad in lying.

“See you later, then,” concluded the boy, standing up and putting his backpack. “I get down here.”

The bus was crowded. He made his way among the clamorous fowl students, and then saluted once again the man waving an arm, before stepping down.

It was almost one o’clock and he was very hungry. The street was deserted. A residential area consisting of villas with garden, generally bounded by hedges. A row of poplars surround them and the roots of trees over the years had uneven the sidewalk, by now had become difficult to travel it by bike.

Andrea began to run, he need only two hundred meters to reach his home. He did not care much about what was around him, lost in his thoughts. Games, oral tests, subterfuges, parents.

There were a few meters to the gate when he stopped. He gasped, amazed at what he had before him. In an instant he understood.

From that moment his life would never be the same.

I:Michele

1

“He’s doing on purpose; he knows I must go out.”

Michele Bensi raised his eyes from the folder he had in his hand and glanced at the wife that was about to set the table.

Marina was in a bad mood and so she got angry with him. “Cannot you stop at least now? We have to eat; can you stop to handle that stuff?”

He only made a grimace; Marina was more and more intractable. “I do not have much time,” he mumbled, and seemed to him as he apologized.

She was determined to quarrel. “I don’t want you to take the medical records at home, Andrea could see them. In the dining room, then.”

What did she mean by that? Did she consider them contagious? Michele sanctioned his defeat putting them back in the bag, because he wasn’t willing to get tangled up in another useless discussion.

“I’m just an aesthetic surgeon,” he reminded to her.

“Even worse! Certain things stimulate boy’s fantasies, don’t you know?”

The only fantasy to be stimulated was his, but Michele was careful not to say it. He went to sit at the table.

“Andrea’s not here yet,” his wife reminded him.

“I have to go out, the appointment of the three o’clock has been brought forward, I already said to you.”

“So? It’s not my fault if your child is late? He will be chatting as usual.”

Ouch, when he started to talk about Michele as his, things threatened to dash quickly. It was one of those moments when the men were all her enemies, husband and son included.

“Problems at work?” he ventured.

“What problems? Nicasi that asshole, do you mean?”

Michele still did not give himself peace for the mistake he had made, encouraging the aspirations of his wife’s work. He had hoped that a task could soft her character; he could not imagine that the owner of the real estate agency that hired her was a misogynist convinced, and that his female workers had just a purely decorative role. He had already asked her a hundred times to quit, but Marina was not the one who could accept the defeat.

“We could…” he started, but he was saved by the ring of phone.

Thanks to heaven, no matter what he would have said, he would have unleashed her anger.

“I answer,” he said.

“They do not even let us eat in peace! I am so sick of that!” lamented his wife, assuming that it was a business call.

Michele reached the home entrance, where there was one of the phones, and then he changed his mind, because he thought that the call was for him and he didn’t want to talk about breasts surgery with Marina in those conditions around.

So he turned to his studio and closed the door behind him.

He reached the desk while the answering machine was about to answer. “I’m here,” he said, standing above the recorded voice.

There was a moment of silence, and then a voice asked, “Dr. Michele Bensi?”

It wasn’t a business call, it couldn’t be. That was the voice of a child.

“Yes, it’s me. What can I do for you?”

Another silence.

“We have your son. If you want to see him alive you must give us ten thousand euros by noon tomorrow. We’ll call you to tell you where to deliver them.”

“But…” Michele just managed to say before the call was cut off.

He remained with the phone receiver in his hand for a few seconds. Then he couldn’t resist and laughed. It was all too absurd!

Ten thousand euros? Ten thousand? Marina had furs that were more expensive a lot more. A prank call, only a child could be so stupid.

The hilarity left place to the discomfort. Such kind of jokes were just tacky, the fact that it was a child doesn’t justify him. If he was his father he would punish him with severity.

He continued to hold the phone receiver, uncertain about what to do, and remained like that for a long minute, until Marina called him.

“Do you still have it for long? Here is cooling down everything.”

So he put the phone receiver down, determined to forget the unfortunate phone call.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!”

He returned to the dining room and found his wife already sitting at the table. The unease grew.

“Andrea isn’t here yet?”

“Let’s begin without him, I can’t wait any longer. I have to go, have you forgotten? Or do you prefer to wash the dishes after?”

There was no need to remind her that there was a dishwasher. Michele took place in front of her. “He should be already here.”

“Of course he should be here! Do you notice it now?”

Michele was confused; he didn’t know what to do. “I received a strange phone call.”

“Let me guess… buttocks? No, wait, someone who wants to shrink his earlobes.”

“Don’t be silly. Was someone who… who said he had kidnapped Andrea.”

Marina paralyzed, whereupon he added immediately: “It was supposed to be a joke; there was a boy on the phone.”

“A joke?” she repeated. “How do you know if he really was a child?”

“Please! I can recognize the voice of a child!”

“Maybe it was counterfeited.”

“No it was not! He was a baby and that’s it!”

“There are devices which transform the voice, they change it as you want, and you don’t see the movies?”

“Marina, it was a joke! A joke! He asked me ten thousand euros.”

Marina jerked. “Blackmail? They kidnapped Andrea and they want to be paid?”

“Ten thousand euros, Marina! Think a bit, who would risk life imprisonment for ten thousand euros? Only a child could invent nonsense like that.”

He was unable to convince her completely. “What child?”

“A kid, a kid any one! He took a random number in the phone book and did it, that’s all.”

“How did he know we had a son?”

“He did not know it, but it is logical to assume that an adult man has it. He called and caught us, that’s all.”

“But Andrea…”

“He didn’t say Andrea, he spoke only of our son, do you understand? He doesn’t even know who we are.”

Marina intended to keep the word. “Where is Andrea, then?”

She had put her finger on the wound, though it was not the first time that Andrea was late.

“That phone call had nothing to do with Andrea.”

“That’s what you say!”

“According to you, our son would have been kidnapped by a boy, who wants ten thousand euros to return him back safe?”

A bad choice of words, Marina stiffened. “Safe?” she repeated.

“Don’t get the wrong idea, it is nonsense.”

Michele struggled to keep a normal tone of voice, Marina did not even try. “Where is my son?” yelled.

He had now become her son. Michele sighed. “It’s just a joke; I do not see the reason to take it in that way.”

Marina had already decided, “Call the police!”

“To make us a laugh? Do you think they would take it seriously? I would be ashamed to tell a similar story!”

“I’m not ashamed at all. If you do not want to call the police I will.”

Michele strove to remain calm. “Let’s eat now. Then I’ll fix this situation.”

Marina exploded. She threw a punch on the table spilling the plate. “Eat? Are you nuts?”

“He will pay for that,” Michele grumbled, leaving the table. “When Andrea returns this time he will listen to me.”

“He will not come back!” Marina shouted. “He cannot! They kidnapped him!”

“What nonsense!”

Why was not he there? Did he happen to be so late? Did they make a joke to him? Maybe it was something organized, not a random phone call.

Then the most unpleasant thoughts: his son was involved in that joke? Andrea lately was becoming increasingly restless, but the idea he organized a joke like that was difficult to believe for Michele.

“We solve it all!” he shouted, forsaking to refrain. “Now!”

He headed to the studio and Marina went behind him. “Will you call the police?”

“What police!”

He entered and immediately reached the phone. He pressed some keys calling up the list of the latest incoming calls. “Watch! And then tell me who is right.”

Marina looked at him but did not understand. “So?”

“There is also the phone number from which he called! It seems to you something serious or a child’s play?”

“It will be fake.”

It was impossible to reason with that woman; Michele raised his eyes to heaven. “It’s easy to find out.”

He pressed a button and Marina screamed: “What are you doing?”

“I call the number back; it seems logical to me.”

Marina remained silent, heart pounding. She was terrified, and this worried Michele.

The phone rang. Five, ten rings. The doubts began: a phone booth? Was it better or worse?

Unable to make other assumptions, because someone replied.

“Hello?”

It wasn’t at all a child’s voice.

Michele did not know what to say. “Who am I talking to?”

A short silence. “Who are you looking for?”

“I think I’ve received a phone call from your number, an unpleasant phone call.”

Another short silence. There was a man; on the other hand, the voice was completely different.

“It’s not possible. I’ve just come back home.”

“There was someone else in the house?”

“Explain to me what you want to know.”

It was not easy at all. “I received an anonymous phone call from your number, a very annoying call. It was the voice of a boy and…”

“It is not possible.”

Michele was getting more and more confused, his bravery disappeared.

“There are no children in the house?”

“No child can have called from here.”

The answer was weird, but Michele did not realize at the moment. “Somebody called me, though.”

“It must have been a mistake.”

“Who are you?”

“I do not see the need to continue this phone call.”

“I will be forced to call the police then.”

He had bluffed or maybe not, but it was necessary to give a shake to his interlocutor.

“What anonymous call were you talking about?”

“He was a child, I’m sure. He said he kidnapped my son and he wanted…”

The call was interrupted, and he looked incredulous the silent phone receiver. His interlocutor had hung up.

“What did he say?” asked Marina, which had failed to follow the dialogue.

Michele nodded to silence her and recomposed the number. This time the phone made twenty rings in a row before he gave up.

“What does it mean?” asked Marina, that understood even less than him.

“Do we have to call the police?” she asked, now more uncertain.

Michele signaled her to stop. “First let’s think.”

He sat down at the desk and turned on the computer.

“What are you doing?” asked the wife.

“I am trying to find out who is the owner of this number.”

“Is it not better to call the police? They will take care of it.”

“The police will laugh at us, don’t you understand? Let’s solve this story without bothering anybody.”

“Andrea could be in danger.”

“They are children!” cried Michele. “The one who called was a kid and what he said was absurd. It’s just a joke. Let us first understand what Andrea has to do with all this.”

“Andrea?”

He was wrong, and now Marina had reverted to stiffen. Michele attempted to remedy. “Maybe it was some schoolmate of him.”

This last phrase generates an idea in the mind of Marina. “I call them.”

“Who?”

“His friends. I ask them if they saw him.”

Michele didn’t want to create such an alarm, but at least this would occupy Marina for a while. “Do that, but do not talk about the kidnapping. Do not say anything about this phone call. Just say it’s late.”

Unusually deferential, Marina nodded.

“Use the phone in the entryway, though; I might need this one.”

Once again she nodded convinced. “Yes, I’m going.”

Damn, she was anxious. Some of her concern had insinuated in Michele.

He connected to the internet and reached the home page of an online phone book. He copied the phone number, and within a couple of seconds, the mystery was revealed.

Avv. Gualtiero Todini. Via Frascati 15.

A lawyer? They are assholes, those. It became obvious that he was reluctant to provide any information.

He thanked the creator of the web and put the man’s name into a search engine. It came out some newspaper articles. The lawyer Todini did not have a personal page and did not seem particularly relevant. It was supposed to be a tax consultant, so there was nothing to bring to the fore. His name leaped out only about certain processes for misappropriation or bankruptcy.

Patiently he read every article related to him and only towards the end he found an interesting one. In fact, in the article, there was a very brief biography of the man; married with two children, Patrizia of seventeen years old and Samuele of twelve.

He lied! In the house, there was a child capable of making that call! He also had the same age as Andrea; maybe they knew one other!

Michele cursed the lawyers and their paranoia, with anyone else you could reason. Anyway, he could not get away with it; such a joke could not be without punishment.

He copied the address and turned off the computer.

“Leave it,” he screamed to be heard by Marina. “I already have everything, now I’m going to talk to him.”

Marina was still on the phone but hung up when he came out of the studio. Her concern increased.

“They know nothing, Ale is worried. He had to come here to study with Andrea; he told me that.”

Michele snorted, increasingly suspicious. “Maybe he’s got him in this story, too.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m going to talk to that man; it seems clear to me. A lawyer, think about that, he will pretend to be right! We only need to be him to sue us.”

“Are you leaving?” she asked, agitated.

“What are you saying? I’m going to talk to that man, what else should I do?”

“And if they call again? If the kidnappers call again?”

“What kidnappers!” Michele blurted out; then he remembered that those had been the words of the child. “You stay here, then. Can you not go to work?”

Marina nodded immediately, and Michele remembered of his appointments. “I call to postpone them,” she grumbled to herself.

“Do we have them?”

“What?”

Marina started screaming. “Do we have ten thousand euros in cash? Do we have them?”

“What nonsense are you talking?”

“I don’t care if it’s a joke! I want my son!”

“There was no kidnapping, now don’t go too far. You can’t believe it’s a serious thing.”

“But you’re going to that man. And if he was implicated too?”

“It doesn’t make any sense; don’t put absurd ideas in my head. His son has screwed up, and he is protecting him. He is a lawyer, right? I just want to talk to the child. We solve all, don’t worry.”

“And if it does not solve?”

“If it is not solved, we call the police, but I don’t think…”

“Do you think it’s the right move? They could harm Andrea. The kidnappers don’t like that you involve the police.”

“Stop!” shouted Michele, tired of her constant changes of mind. “Please stop! Don’t speak of kidnapping! They’re only fooling us.”

“It’s only ten thousand euros, why risk it?”

Michele looked at her incredulously; Marina wanted to submit to blackmail, even in such a situation? She stopped thinking.

He cut it short. “Now I’m going to meet that man and talk to him, do you understand?”

“Do not jeopardize Andrea, please. Do not insist. I put the money if you don’t want to.”

Yes, he had to get out of there as soon as possible if he wanted to keep his sanity.

“I’m sure I will bring him back, your precious son! Just pray that he is not involved in this story at all. Otherwise, he will no longer leave his room until he grows old!”

“Do not say these things.”

“Do you let me go or not? We’re just wasting time.”

Marina bowed his head. “Go, go. But keep me informed, do not let me be worried.”

Michele ran away, without adding anything else.

2

The house of lawyer Todini was nicer than his house. So much nicer. It was evident that the man did not need ten thousand euros.

It was a house isolated which stood just outside the town, modern, with pool and tennis court. All surrounded by a green meadow.

Michele had the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that only hassle and trouble could come from that visit. But he couldn’t go back now.

In front of the gate, before using the intercom, he took his cell phone and called home.

“Still nothing?”

“What did that man say to you?”

“I have yet to talk to him; I wanted first to make sure that Andrea had not returned.”

“He is not back.”

“There have been… ehm… other phone calls?”

“None.”

“So am I going?”

“Go.”

The voice of Marina was cold, but it trembled as well. Michele pressed the intercom button. Nobody answered, but the tent at one of the windows moved, just for a moment.

This made him angry, so he pressed the button again, leaving it pressed.

After a long minute, the appliance croaked, a sign that there was someone on the other side.

Michele did not allow him to speak. “If you don’t open this gate I will go straight to the police; then we will see how it will end.”

There was a click, and the gate opened.

Michele got in the car and drove to the villa. The close view of it was even more impressive.

He stopped the car in front of the entrance and got out, but there was no need to knock. A maid in uniform opened the door.

With calm, she led the way. “Please follow me; the lawyer is waiting for you.”

He was forced to walk the entire house before reaching the lawyer’s studio, and that depressed him. Maybe that spectacular display of wealthy was intentional, to intimidate any troublemakers.

The studio was impressive, all wood with high furniture full of legal texts. The man sitting at the desk was older than he had supposed, he must be more than fifty years old, and he seemed almost minute amid such opulence.

“Is you who called me?”

The best defense is a good offense. Michele was not a lawyer, but he knew this. “You lied to me; you have a son.”

“I’ve got two, for that matter, but none of them could have called.”

“I have proof.”

The man waved just a hand. “I do not argue, though it wasn’t anyone in my family. I interrogated the servants, but they ensure they were not.”

“His son…”

“Leave my son; he can’t be the one who called you.”

“He was here?”

“Do not you want to believe me?”

Michele tried to be diplomatic. “I do not think you are a liar, but a boy called me from this house. You said by yourself you just returned. Where was your son at one o’clock? Did you ask to him? Was he with you?”

The man remained calm and invited him to sit with a nod.

“No, I didn’t ask him, there was no need. Although it is unpleasant to say, my son can’t have made the phone call, Mr…” He remained pending for a second, but when Michele kept silence, he said: “My son is mute; unfortunately, he is unable to speak.”

Everything was expected except that. Michele remained speechless.

“Before you accuse me of lying about that too, I assure you that I did not make it up on the spot. My son’s problems are well known; it’s years he is visited by the best specialists, without any results. I think someone made a joke. In a way, he did it also to me.”

Michele tried to fight the confusion. “He was a child and called from this house. If he is not your son, maybe it’s one of his friends. Maybe you know him. There was anyone else here.”

The lawyer shook his head. “There was no one, my wife and my daughter were shopping around, they had lunch in town. The servitude saw no one. And Samuele… he does not have friends. He does not lead a normal life; he does not even go to school, he needs special teachers.”

“He asserted that he kidnapped my son.”

“Yes, you told me.”

“You hang up the phone in my face!”

“They are not topics to discuss over the phone. You didn’t even introduce yourself.”

“My son is missing,” Michele added, in one breath.

The lawyer crossed his fingers. “I understand how that can feel, but…”

“It’s a joke; it must be a joke, it cannot be a real kidnapping.”

“If to call was indeed a child it is very likely to be so.”

“How can he call from here?”

The man remained silent for a long time. “You would like to talk to my son, aren’t you?”

Michele looked at him astonished.

The man smiled. “Until you will not see my son you will not be convinced, you will always think I lied.”

“He can’t talk, you said. He is dumb.”

“The fact that he is dumb does not imply that he is a fool. He is perfectly able to understand your questions.”

“Would you let me talk to him?”

“My son is compassionate; I don’t want you talking about kidnappings and missing children. Prank phone calls. Just ask him about prank phone calls. Is that fine to you?”

Michele nodded slowly. It made no difference.

“I’m giving you my trust, try not to disappoint me,” recalled the lawyer and pressed a button on his desk. The door opened immediately, and the waitress showed up.

“Adele, would you be so kind to call Samuele? I need to talk to him.”

As soon as the waitress had disappeared, he continued. “Normally I would never do anything like that, but I realize you are upset. Samuele is the dearest I have.”

Michele was confused and dazed. This kindness had little in common with the tone of the phone call they had. Even to enter into that house, he had to insist. Any attempt to make sense of the lawyer actions was interrupted by the arrival of the child.

Extremely quiet he entered the studio and closed the door without making a sound. He went to sit in a chair far away from them. What most astonished Michele was that his father did not even raise his head to look at him?

“My son doesn’t like the proximity of other human beings; he doesn’t like even people looking at him.”

Considering he was even dumb there was no choice if he wanted to question him, he had to look at him.

He was minute, seemed much younger than Andrea, though at the same time he had an elegant bearing and a serious air that Andrea hardly could match.

“Samuele, this is Mr.…”

Michele was forced to say his name. “Bensi.”

“Mr. Bensi would like to ask you a few questions. You were always in the house today?”

The request had astonished the child; nevertheless, he nodded.

“Was there anyone with you?”

He moved fast the hands.

The lawyer translated. “Only Adele and Mirko, he’s our driver. I’ve already talked to him.”

He nodded to Michele to continue. He tried to keep a friendly tone of voice. “Did you see anyone make a phone call?”

“He wouldn’t even if he had,” the lawyer intruded. “In his rooms, there are no telephones; he cannot use them.”

The child shook his head anyway.

“No friend come to see you?”

This time he did not answer, and his father interfered again. “My son doesn’t have any friends, I told you. He cannot have relations with his peers.”

Although annoyed him to do so in front of the boy, Michele couldn’t help himself. “What has he? What does he suffer from?”

“Isn’t that enough? My son knows nothing about the phone call.”

It was not enough. He turned to the child. “Do you know Andrea Bensi? He is my son.”

The boy shook his head.

“Someone made a prank call from this house. Do you know anything?”

Another denial.

“So?” asked the lawyer.

An interrogation conducted in that way was absurd, Michele no longer knew what to ask more. He remained silent.

“You can go, Samuele, go back to play.”

The child slid down from the chair and kept himself as far away as possible from them. He left in complete silence.

“It has been the trauma,” admitted the lawyer. “A tragic car accident, several years ago, since then he did not recover.”

“What happened to him?”

“He has spoken no longer since that day, he just wants to be alone, he feels uncomfortable even in our presence.”

The lawyer lost all his stolidity, lost in the memory, and his voice trembled. “There were some dead, unfortunately. Samuele saw them die. Too much, for a child so small.”

“I had no idea…” began Michele, he just didn’t know what to say.

“We had hoped he could be back to normal, but something broke in him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Do you understand why I say that someone made a joke to both of us? It is possible that some guy came on purpose here, I won’t deny it. After all, it was broad daylight, and the house’s alarm is not armored. For sure he has a macabre sense of humor for choosing us.”

It was logical and believable, but Michele continued to feel uncomfortable.

The man stood up, for the first time. Although very slim he exceeded himself in height. He gave him his hand. “I don’t think you should worry, though. It is likely to be a joke.”

“It’s possible,” admitted Michele.

“What else could it be?”

He was sending him away, and Michele could not do otherwise. His explanations were logical and still had no way of accusing him.

“If I could talk to your daughter… maybe some of her friends…”

The lawyer smiled. “I am afraid that my daughter’s friends are all older than her. You spoke of a child, right? My daughter has no children among his friends.”

He was grasping at straws, and he knew it. He accepted to shake his hand and taken to the door.

“Adele will lead you to the exit. Have a nice day Mr. Bensi.”

He found himself outside the villa in the blink of an eye. Sitting in the car, before leaving, he tried to sum up what he had discovered.

There was a strange feeling, the encounter with that boy had shaken him. The conditions besetting, his tragic past, the fact that anyone who made the phone call meant just to lead him there.

That was the center of it all, why call him right from that house? If the lawyer was right and that boy had penetrated into the villa, that had been a premeditated act. In any case, it could not have been a mistake.

He remembered about Marina, who was waiting for a phone call.

He composed the number, and when she answered, he went straight to the point. “There is no child.”

“What does it mean? You said that there was one.”

“The only child of the house may not have called; he is dumb.”

“Dumb?”

“They did it on purpose; it’s a joke that too.”

He was unsure, but to say it reassured him.

“And that lawyer?”

“He proved helpful; I did meet his son. It’s not him.”

“What do you know? You haven’t heard his voice!”

“I don’t think they lied.”

Even that was certain, but it was futile to distress her, too.

“What are you going to do now?”

It was useless to ask if Andrea had returned. “Did anyone called you?”

“I would have told you. Would you like to go to the police?”

Marina was uncertain, she contradicted herself all the time, but even him was unable to make up his mind. “They would not listen to me. They would say that it’s a joke, as it is. They would think Andrea organized it; we would just put him into trouble.”

“What would you do? Pay the ransom?”

It was the last of his desires; he didn’t even want to consider such a hypothesis.

“I’m coming back home,” he decided.

“Yes, come back.”

The second call was at six o’clock in the afternoon after Marina had stuffed herself with anti-depressants pills. She prowled the house almost exhilarated, bordering hysteria, and even Michele nerves were failing.

He was willing to record the phone call of the alleged kidnapper, to have something in hand, and fiddling around with the answering machine he noticed that a part of the previous call was on the record. Only one sentence, in fact, just before the phone receiver hang up.

“Doctor Michele Bensi?”

He made Marina listen. “Do you agree that this is a child? Does he remind you of anyone?”

She listened to it several times, without identifying him. She did not deny that it appeared to be a child’s voice.

That one sentence was unnecessary, it could not be evidence of anything, but it was still a start.

He connected the recorder removing the answering machine and made a couple of tests to make sure that it registered, then he sat down to wait.

“Andrea is almost five hours late,” recalled Marina. “Are you still sure that nothing happened to him?”

Michele was certain of one thing only: “He was a kid the one who called and asked a ridiculous request, a joke or a prank, both way nothing bad will happen to Andrea.”

“If you say so!”

All those pills had anesthetized her; she had lost much of her aggression.

In any case, Michele refused to treat it as a real kidnapping. If Andrea disappeared from other children like him, telephone threats could not be a bluff. No one was going to hurt him.

When the phone rang, however, they both jumped as they got shocked.

Michele activated the recorder and lifted the receiver.

“Doctor Michele Bensi?”

It wasn’t him, it was a woman’s voice, though it sounded very young from the timbre.

“Yes?”

“The money will be withdrawn tomorrow at noon, in the park in front of your house. Be sure to leave them on the third bench from the west entrance. Place them in an anonymous paper bag. There were no banknotes with a value above fifty euros. There will be no further communications. Without payment, or if you inform the police, you will not see your son again.”

“Wait! Wait!”

She had already hung up. This time Marina had heard every word.

“He was acting, did you hear? Or reading a note. She didn’t let me even speak.”

Marina was distraught. He went to the window and instinctively drew back the curtain. The park was not far away, and the west entrance was standing right in front of their home. With a little effort, she could even count the benches.

Marina spun around. “Do you still believe that they choose a number at random?”

Michele did not know what to think. “This was a little girl, did you hear?”

Marina was uncertain. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, it was a little girl! Damn if she was.”

“They’re at least two, then.”

He did not say it, but Michele was sure that they were even more. Some businesses are easier to build with a group; no child would dare to do them alone.

He listened to the tape again: it recorded every word.

Then he checked the incoming calls. “Once again there is the number of which they called.”

He composed it, but nobody answered, although he left it ringing for a long time.

He sat at the computer and tried the number on the list, without any luck. “It has not been inserted.”

“How much money we have in the house? You didn’t answer me. We can always go and pick them up at the bank.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“If you don’t want to go, tomorrow morning I will go.”

“You can’t believe…”

“I don’t care!” Marina shouted the effect of drugs had to be attenuated. “It is not even to be discussed! They did not demand one million euros! Whether they are children or not it doesn’t matter, you would put in danger the life of your son for ten thousand euros?”

“It’s not about that. It’s not about the money.”

“What is it, then? You think Andrea is involved in all this? I don’t care! We pay them the same! I just want him to come home.”

“Calm down; we don’t need to pay any ransom.”

“Asshole! You always want to pontificate! You know everything, do not try to make me think about, it’s useless!”

She was on the verge of a collapse. “My son has disappeared, they kidnapped him! I do not care who did it; I want him back!”

Michele took the recording and put it in his pocket; then he did the same with the one in the answering machine.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to the police; now we have something in our hands to show them.”

Marina was near to slap him. “The police? You heard them, if we go to the police, we will not ever see Andrea again.”

“Now don’t exaggerate it.”

“Stop looking at me like a poor fool! We’re talking about our son!”

“That threat has no value.”

“It’s Andrea’s life that has no value for you! Less than ten thousand euros!”

“You’re saying a bunch of nonsense.” Michele struggled to keep her calm. “Do you think I should get ripped off by a bunch of kids who are playing? Do we want to make us a laugh for everyone?”

“You’re a bastard!”

“Ah no, I just do not recognize you anymore! What should we do, in your opinion? Dine quietly and then go to bed, while our son is somewhere? And tomorrow we pay the ransom as well? Do you think it makes sense?”

“The police…”

“It’s their job, Even they think this is a joke, they must do something! We have a recording, now!”

“What could they do?”

“Find out who they are. Arrest them. Find Andrea.”

“It’s too dangerous, Can’t we wait for Andrea to come home? We could go to the police after when everything is over.”

Michele grimaced. “After they would not find them anymore.”

“I do not care!”

He shook his head. “They would think Andrea was the one that arranged everything; they would not listen to us.”

“I don’t care!” Marina repeated screaming.

“Let me do it; I assure you that nothing will happen to Andrea. Tonight he will sleep quietly in his bed.”

He had asked her too much, a trust she could no longer give to him. “And if they are watching us? If they see you go to the police station? Don’t you think of that?”

“I’ll be careful,” he said, just to calm her.

“We are making a mistake; I’m sure we’re doing it all wrong. They’re asking only ten thousand euros, why risk it? We can easily afford them.”

“They can not get away with it, do you understand? Not after the fright, they’ve made us.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Calm down, now, I will be away just a bit, I’m sure they will know how to behave. They will never put in danger a child’s life.”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” murmured Marina, though she was surrendering.

Michele gave her a quick kiss on the forehead before leaving her. “Do not worry; everything will be ok.”

Only when he was out of the overwhelming atmosphere of the house, he breathed a sigh of relief. It lasts just a bit because when he got in the car, he found a ticket attached to the dashboard.

He froze, unable to touch it.

The car was locked up just as he had left it, and the ticket was inside. Anyone who had put him should have the keys to his car. Andrea?

He could not think of anyone else who could access to keys so easily. He had no intention to return home to check where the extra keys were. Even if he found them, it wouldn’t have made any difference, because a copy was accessible at any time.

He took his strength and took the ticket. It was the writing of a child; there were no doubts. It was not that of Andrea, of that he was certain.

There was only a name and address.

Melissa Guiberti, Fonda Street 112.

3

Why there and not to the police? Michele was wondering about it. Was he doing their game? Would not it be more logical to bring that ticket to the police?

He had not even called Marina, was it a mistake?

Standing in front of the anonymous palace in Fonda Street, Michele did not know how to behave. It was a completely different place than he expected, an old popular house that was falling apart. Why did they send him there?

Melissa Guiberti lived on the top floor and the elevator, as it was obvious to expect, was also out of service. Even the intercom did not work anymore, and the palace door was wide open. The stairs stayed unclean for decades; the walls painted with graffiti. He had the feeling of wasting his time.

Was this woman dealing with the kidnapping? Was she always a woman and not another child? No, it was impossible, since there was her name on the letterbox. He doubted very much that she would admit responsibility in that way.

Why send him there then? What was she supposed to tell him, what did she need to find out?

He stood uncertainly in front of her door for over a minute, a bit to catch a breath after climbing the stairs, but also to thinking for a pretext to justify his presence there.

Finally, he rang the bell.