Authors: Christobel Kent
A DARKNESS DESCENDING
A Mystery in Florence
NEW YORK LONDON
I would like to acknowledge the great debt I owe Angus MacKinnon, without whose clever, careful eye and impeccable instincts Sandro Cellini would never have become the man he is.
HE HAD TO LEAN
right down into the cot to set him down. It was a movement she had almost perfected over these first six weeks of his life: it might as well have been a decade, because now it seemed to her that the time before him had receded, impossibly out of reach.
The movement had to be slow and steady, then the arm had to be eased out from under that surprising weight that was his warm, damp head. The soft light glowed from the shelf above the cot: she straightened, set her hands on the rail and looked down. One small, plump arm in the white terry-cloth sleeve was raised and folded against his body like that of a little praying mantis; his cheek was just flushed from the feed, his mouth slightly open. His rosebud mouth with its milk blister: he was perfect. Born perfect, in spite of it all.
Next door she heard Niccolò shift in his chair, heard the rustle of the newspaper, and held her breath. She heard him cross his legs. She didn’t need to see, to know. They had been one soul, one unit, since they were nineteen years old. She knew what he was thinking. She didn’t move: she was waiting to be sure that the child was asleep, he knew that. She felt as though she would like to stay in here for ever, buried in the warm half-dark, postponing the moment.
It was not quiet: the Piazza Santo Spirito was almost never quiet, and September was a busy month. She could hear the restaurant sounds, the clink and clatter, the hum of conversation in different languages, a waitress bellowing into the kitchen. The midwife had reassured her, He’ll be used to it. They learn in the womb: these sounds are life to him, they’re his world, like your heartbeat. Some babies had Mozart played to them; her child would have the singing drunks of the Piazza Santo Spirito.
It was early still. The raucous sounds of the later evening had yet to begin. She liked to put him down by seven, although her mother-in-law found fault with her schedule, as with almost everything else. With the fact that they lived on the Piazza Santo Spirito, where drugs were dealt on the corner and there was always one alcoholic rough sleeper or another fighting, reeling under the statue or parked in a heap of rags and carrier bags against the fountain. The fact that they had never married, that they wouldn’t have the child baptized. Niccolò’s mother even found fault with her age.
You make yourself ridiculous. Babies should come at nineteen, twenty.
Her mother-in-law’s own age when she had had Niccolò, her only child, her treasure, which meant that she was a young grandmother. She could go on for years yet.
‘You put him down at seven, you can’t complain when he wakes you at three.’
She didn’t complain, though. If she had a complaint, she would not bring it to her mother-in-law. She stood on, still looking down: from next door a tiny exhalation of breath that meant, what are you doing in there still? Not that he would ever voice it. Niccolò did not seek confrontation, he took an age to rise to provocation, which was just as well, given the path he had chosen. Stern, just, certain: his face lifted before her, questioning, and lowered again to resume his examination of the newspaper. As if in confirmation, there was the sound of a page turning, carefully.
It came to her that the child didn’t need her, not really: milk came in bottles too, after all. She was not strictly necessary, not with the steady presence of Niccolò, his certainty, his resolution. His goodness.
In the kitchen the pots stood ready. She had made a sauce with aubergine and tomato. She need only turn and step back out of the warm, hushed gloom and light the flame, lay the table. Sit, push the food around the plate while Niccolò averted his eyes. She hadn’t eaten, it seemed, in months, but Niccolò said nothing.
Leaning down, gently, slowly, she pulled the white blanket over her son, to the chin. Up she came again, out of the cot, out of the child’s orbit, his sweet breath, his innocent, milky flesh, set her hands back on the rail to keep them still.
And it began: she was powerless to stop it. She tried to delay it, as if she might fool her own body; she stood very still, breathed as slow as she could. It’s in your head, she told herself, it’s your head that got you into this. Don’t do it, don’t look. Outside the night was cooling, the blessing of September after August, but a sweat broke on her upper lip. Don’t do it to yourself. She reached up to the shelf where the nightlight sat, felt along it with her hand, stopped, lifted it. Looked. No.
The sweat bathed her, from her brow to the backs of her knees. She felt the most sudden terrible urge to run to the window so quickly she wouldn’t be able to think and the momentum would propel her through, through the shutters, across the too-low sill and down three floors, twenty metres, she would fall, shocking in her house slippers and nightwear, between the restaurant tables. And there would be a silence. The silence was what she wanted: she wanted it all to stop.
Moving the hand along further, she reached for the baby monitor. She pressed the switch and its blinking green light came on. She turned for the door.
Niccolò’s face raised to hers, taking in the flush on her cheeks, the sweat on her neck, the dress sticking to her too-thin body, to the hips that had once been rounded, the breast that had been full. She felt a hundred years old under his gaze, a shrunken thing.
You make yourself ridiculous, at your age.
He could see the tremor in her hand as she pushed the door behind her because she saw it reflected in his face, but he said nothing.
‘He’s down,’ she said.
HE CAME IN PAST
the journalist, a big man taking notes, handsome if you liked that kind of thing. Giuli didn’t. She’d seen him before; he smelled of cigarettes and good aftershave.
The meeting room was stuffy and crowded. Giuli – Giulietta Sarto, trainee private investigator, clinic receptionist and dogsbody, it sometimes seemed to her, to one and all – staggered a little as still more people jostled in. Among them she glimpsed a familiar face: Chiara, looking around for someone. They were already standing. The few chairs had been first ignored and then shoved aside.
On tiptoe Giuli strained to find Chiara again, to see if she was alone or if, like Giuli, she was with someone. Daughter of a policeman, fresh-faced, eager, nineteen years old: what was she doing here? Just the kind of new recruit they needed, actually. But she didn’t reappear. Perhaps, Guili thought, I was mistaken.
A window would have been a blessing; the evening air had been soft and just warm as she and her boyfriend Enzo had walked here, hand in hand. Instead, the overhead strip lighting and absence of any natural light were combining to give Giuli a headache. She didn’t suffer from claustrophobia, and she was resolutely disinclined to panic in any given situation, which was one reason why Sandro – Sandro Cellini, policeman turned private investigator and, as it happened, old friend and former colleague in the force of Chiara’s father Pietro – had decided to trust her with more work. Yet as the crowd once again shifted her on her feet, Giuli felt her gut tighten all the same and she groped for Enzo at her side. Looked for emergency exit signs, of which there were none.
Enzo took her hand firmly in his and she turned her head towards him. His broad, homely face framed by the old-fashioned haircut looked back at her, absolutely reassuring.
‘Not your idea of a romantic evening?’ He ducked his head shyly under her gaze, looking at her sideways. She squeezed his hand.
It was not an attractive venue, but then the Frazione Verde – its membership an eclectic, impoverished assortment of intellectuals, ex-communists, fervent greens, peaceniks and all the considerable variety of those, like Enzo and Guili, disillusioned with mainstream politics – couldn’t afford anything better. Access was via a passage that, if the smell was anything to go by, was used as a latrine by the local rough sleepers and ran behind a deconsecrated church on the Via Sant’Agostino, a hundred metres from the Piazza Santo Spirito. Constructed as a makeshift dispensary for charity following the war, it was crammed between two other buildings; it might have been above ground, but being inside the place felt like being buried.
At the back someone began to stamp and holler. Other feet and voices joined in a ragged chant, which then petered out. The strip lighting flickered briefly and Giuli felt a sweat break out on her forehead: she’d worn a jacket, thinking September could be treacherous, and she pulled it off with sudden violence. Enzo lifted a hand to her bared arm, to calm her. ‘It’s fine,’ she mouthed, trying to make her smile reassuring. Was she turning squeamish? Was Giulietta Sarto, ex-offender, ex-addict, dragged up on the Via Senese by a whore, turning bourgeois? Never.
fine. She believed. She believed in this place, however suffocating and crowded and ugly. She believed in the chants raised behind her. For to her surprise, Guili had found the first time Enzo had brought her to one of these meetings that she believed in protest. This was her voice, the voice she’d been waiting to hear come from her own mouth.
Heads were turning now, and the sound had changed, a kind of jeering applause, angry and approving at the same time. Movement set up again in the crowd, then almost magically it calmed of its own accord, a hush fell over them, an attentiveness, as though St Francis had come among the beasts.
Giuli frowned at the comparison that had suggested itself to her despite a godless upbringing, despite the fervently anti-religious stance of the Frazione Verde. But there was something of the saint about him. About the man whose arrival in the meeting room – absolutely punctual as always, the harshly ticking clock over the door showing eight o’clock to the very second – had turned heads and quieted the fray. Craning her neck, across the room Giuli could only see his narrow temples, the hair just turning grey, the deepset, dark eyes behind thick glasses, his head turning this way and that as he made his way towards the stage. Hands from the crowd went out to touch him as he passed.
Niccolò Rosselli: the Frazione’s leader and figurehead, thrust unwillingly into the limelight, humble, unassuming, but once on that podium a different man. Once on that podium, you believed he could do anything. He would be a deputy, he would take his place in the seat of government, he would battle for them.
At the front of the crowd now, Rosselli bent his head to climb the three steps to the stage, and at the sight of the vulnerable back of his neck, at the head bowed as if in humility, the narrow shoulders in the dusty jacket, they quieted.
Another man waited for him, at the edge of the stage. Rosselli moved across the bare scuffed boards – no lectern, no props – he turned, he raised his hands, and they were absolutely silent. Behind the glasses his eyes burned. The planes of his face, it seemed to Giuli, were sharper than before. His voice, when he spoke, was deep and cracked and fierce.
‘Do you think it will be easy?’ A murmur, as though he was frightening them, that died away as quickly as it had come.
‘It won’t be easy.’ His hands came down, as if in a blessing, and the upturned faces were rapt and still: he spoke to them and silently they gave him back their faith.
‘There are forces ranged against us, we know that. You must be ready for a fight, but you must be ready to fight fairly. Because if once we falter in that determination then we are become what we are here to sweep away. Once we take a bribe, once we give preferment, once we dig dirt or pass false information. Instead we pay our fines, we deliver our taxes, we work as hard as we are capable of working and we fight to protect those who need our protection.’