Authors: Tobias Jones
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First published in
by Faber and Faber Ltd
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This ebook edition first published in 2013
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For David and Vandana
It was almost ten at night when I finally found Fausto Biondi’s villa. A couple of cars honked loudly as I slowed down to manoeuvre my wheels onto the pavement. It had taken over five hours to get here and my limbs were stiff as I opened the car door and swung out my legs. I rotated my gammy ankle and looked up at the imposing palazzo. Most of it was obscured by a large solid metal gate. I got out, walked to the intercom and pushed in the transparent rectangle.
A gruff male voice came on immediately. ‘Who is it?’
‘About time.’ The line went dead and the gate swung open to reveal a mansion that looked like a doll’s house: perfectly symmetrical with five large windows on each floor. I got back in the car and drove in. Lights flicked on as the car hit automatic sensors, flooding the white gravel drive in a chill light.
A man was standing in the doorway as I got out.
‘What’s taken you so long?’ he scowled.
‘I had to do my make-up.’
He looked at my unshaven face without smiling. He was a tall man with a strong face and grey hair. Probably late fifties, I thought. He had half-moon glasses resting on his chest, their arms attached to a cord that went around his neck.
‘Fausto Biondi.’ He held out a hand. We shook and he led me inside. The place was eerily clean and our footsteps echoed on the marble as he led me into a reception room. An entire wall was lined with the tan leather spines of antiquarian books. On another wall were ancient oil paintings, hung close together so that the effect was dark and sombre. On one of the three sofas was a thin, tense woman who was holding a glass in both hands as if she were nervously praying.
‘Good evening,’ she said weakly, putting her glass down and trying to push herself up off the sofa.
‘My wife, Giovanna.’ Biondi nodded his head in her direction. Then he pointed at me. ‘This is the detective, Castagnetti.’
She was still trying to stand up but wobbled badly. Her husband caught her and took the glass out of her hand.
‘You’re drinking too much,’ he hissed.
She ignored him and turned to me, offering a limp paw, fingers down, as if she expected me to kiss it rather than shake it. I did what I could with those cold fingers, holding them as she looked at me with imploring eyes. Her face was puffy and pasty, framed by hair that looked unbrushed.
‘It’s a pleasure,’ she said with the sort of deliberation that suggested she was concentrating on not slurring her words.
‘You said on the phone . . .’ I began, hoping one of them would pick up the story.
‘Please.’ Biondi motioned with his hand to one of the sofas. ‘Sit down.’
nk back into the cushions and the two of them stood there awkwardly, side by side but decidedly distant.
‘Our daughter is missing,’ he said bluntly.
I nodded. ‘What’s she called?’
‘Just Simona,’ he said impatiently.
‘And how long has she been missing?’
‘Since yesterday morning. She went out to do some shopping and never came back. We waited for her at lunch and she didn’t come home. Her phone was switched off. Still is. She never switches off her phone. She’s on it all the time. Always sending messages to her friends. Bloody beep-beep every two minutes.’
‘And you’ve informed the authorities?’
‘Called them last night. They’re useless. They ask a couple of questions and then clear off. They say she’s an adult and probably just wants an adventure. They said there’s no evidence of any crime having been committed.’
At the mention of the word ‘crime’ the wife gave an involuntary yelp. Biondi looked at her like she was an irritation and turned back to me.
‘We haven’t slept all night.’ He looked at his wife as if it were her fault. ‘I’m afraid we’re very tense.’
‘She’s an adult, you said. How old is she?’
‘Only just eighteen,’ the wife said. She was shaking badly and muttering something to herself.
‘And what was she wearing?’
‘Jeans. T-shirt. The same as every other teenager,’ Biondi said.
‘Of the T-shirt? It was red.’
‘OK,’ I took it in slowly, trying to weigh up the probability that the girl had gone absent voluntarily from this tense household.
‘Does Simona have a boyfriend?’
‘No,’ he said brusquely.
‘Is she,’ I hesitated, ‘sexually active?’
‘You make her sound like an animal.’
‘I’ve got other phrases if you prefer.’
He scowled at me and I held his stare. I was getting tired of the spiteful atmosphere. We stared at each other for another second and he eventually dropped his chin on his chest, looking over at his wife from the corner of his eye. ‘Is she?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. She hasn’t ever said anything to me. She’s never even had a boyfriend. Not a real boyfriend.’
‘And you’ve no idea why she would run away?’
‘She hasn’t run away,’ he said aggressively. ‘Something’s happened to her.’
I nodded, not wanting to say anything else that might antagonise him. As we stood there I could hear footsteps in the hall, quick clicks on the marble floor that sounded urgent. A tall, elegant woman came into the room with a tray of sandwiches.
‘Hello,’ she said to me as she put the tray on the long low table in front of the sofa.
‘This is our elder daughter,’ Biondi said. ‘Chiara.’
We nodded at each other and shook hands. She must have been much older than Simona, in her mid or late thirties. Almost my age, I thought, without knowing why. She looked young enough to be reckless, but old enough to get away with it. She had an hourglass figure and her yellow dress didn’t leave much to the imagination.
‘Have you got a photograph?’ I asked.
‘I’ll get it,’ Chiara said, as if there were only one in the whole household. Her heels sounded like the crack of a whip as she paced off. I watched her as she went: the back of her dress was almost down to the small of her back, revealing warm, tanned skin.
‘Prego,’ Biondi said to me, motioning towards the sandwiches. It was almost his first act of courtesy. I took one and then another. I hadn’t eaten since starting the drive south soon after lunch.
He moved over to a drinks trolley and I saw him put a glass stopper back on a bottle of clear liquid. He poured two glasses of water and then gave them to me and his wife. We stood there like that, waiting for Chiara to come back. Biondi was frowning at everything he laid eyes on.
She came back and stood beside me so that our upper arms were touching. She was holding a magazine that looked thin. She passed it over to me and the paper felt as flimsy as aluminium foil. I shut it to look at the cover.
, it was called. It was one of the standard gossip mags full of photos and fashion and guesses about what the stars were wearing or who they were seeing. I turned back to the page Chiara had shown me and looked at a collage of snaps, all printed as if they were Polaroids. There were captions written in the white space below.
‘That’s her,’ Chiara said, pointing out a young girl with a broad smile. The caption said ‘Simona Biondi at Oro Nightclub’. Simona was pulling the sort of sideways impish pose – cheekbone on shoulder – that people sometimes adopt when they’re being snapped. She looked coy and coquettish, with big dark eyes and a smile that seemed genuinely carefree. She certainly looked like Chiara: the sisters both had the same bee-stung lips. The whole page showed similar shots: one-off pictures of beautiful people at fashionable clubs.
‘You mind if I keep this?’ I asked.
‘Prego.’ She shrugged. ‘Simona bought a dozen anyway. She thought it was the beginning of her career.’
‘I told her,’ the father growled, ‘that you can’t make a career out of being snapped in nightclubs but she wouldn’t listen.’
‘Did she go out a lot?’
‘She’s just a little girl,’ the mother said in her frail voice.
‘Once a week, like all teenagers,’ the sister said. ‘She went out on a Saturday night with friends, that was it.’ She had a husky sort of voice, the kind of voice that always sounded like a come-on.
‘Would you mind showing me her bedroom?’
The father moved, but Chiara stopped him. ‘I’ll go.’
I followed her out of the room, back towards the front door. On the right was a staircase so wide that a dozen people could walk up side by side. Each time the staircase turned a corner there was a large statue or sculpture. The whole place oozed money but no warmth.
‘What line’s your father in?’ I asked idly as we got to the landing at the top.
She stopped to look at me as if I were being critical. ‘He’s a lawyer.’
We walked to the end of the corridor and into a large bedroom.
‘This is the room,’ she said, like an estate agent showing me round.
I walked in and looked at the scene. There was a wall of walnut wood that I assumed was a wardrobe. Magazines and books were everywhere. There were a couple of chargers on the bed. There was a door off to the left, and I wandered in: an ensuite bathroom containing enough bottles to wash a car. I opened the wooden doors and saw metres of clothes. A central column of shelves must have held more than two dozen pairs of shoes. No money worries here, I thought. The sister was automatically tidying up, closing books and putting them on shelves.
‘Leave it,’ I said. ‘Leave it as it is.’
‘Of course,’ she said, straightening up. ‘Sorry.’
I opened a few drawers. There were no surprises. Just clothing, a lot of clothing, and more magazines. No pills, condoms, letters.
‘Can you tell me a bit more about your sister?’ I asked.
Chiara was over by the window with her back to me and I saw her shoulders bouncing like she was silently sneezing. I moved to the side and saw that she had one hand over her mouth. I watched her for a minute, her body juddering as she cried. Eventually she gave up trying to be silent and wept openly. She looked more openly distraught about the disappearance than either of her parents, and yet at the same time more rational, more together than either of them. Her father seemed to think it was an affront to him that Simona had gone missing; Chiara seemed only concerned that Simona might be in danger.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said once she had pulled herself together.
She went back to looking out of the window and started speaking as if in a trance. ‘Simona is just a lovely girl. She’s a very smart, kind girl.’
‘Has anything happened recently that might have made her want to leave home?’
She shook her head. ‘She’s been retreating into herself for a year or two now. She’s become obsessed about her own privacy and space. This is the first time I’ve been in this room for months. But that’s normal. All teenagers want that. They all want their own room to be a haven from parental interference. They need to establish themselves in their own world. Simona was doing that, pushing them away a bit, but that’s normal. It’s very normal.’
‘And she gets on OK with your parents?’
She shrugged. ‘Our parents aren’t exactly easy to live with.’
‘You’ve seen them. My father has the civility of a goose. He’s got a short fuse and a long memory. Won’t forget any wrong that’s ever been done to him. And my mother is a nervous wreck. Always has been, even before Simona went missing. I can’t imagine how Simona survives here on her own with the two of them.’
‘You don’t live here?’
‘No. God no. I’ve got my own family. I left home a couple of years after Simona was born, so it’s like she’s grown up as an only child. At least when I was growing up my father had some graces left. And Mother was working back then, so I hardly saw her.’
‘What does she do?’
‘She doesn’t any more. She was a doctor. She was always at work when I was growing up. I spent more time with a nanny than I ever did with her. But then she had some sort of breakdown and never went back to work. She started self-medicating, taking all sorts of pills and washing them down with anything she could find on the drinks trolley. It’s kind of funny. I used to be jealous of Simona growing up with Mother in the house, because I never had that. I never really spent much time with my own mother. But I think I actually had it a whole lot easier. Simona’s grown up with this weepy, self-pitying wreck who just lies around and expects to be waited on.’ She stopped herself. ‘I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.’
‘And Simona waits on her?’
‘She’s an angel, an absolute angel. She’s been my mother’s nurse for years. I mean, they’ve got a woman who does the shopping and cooking and the like, but Simona’s the one who does the emotional chores.’
‘Listening to Mother when she gets weepy, soothing my father when he’s irate. It’s like she’s the parent and they’re the stroppy children.’
‘You don’t think she just got bored of being a nurse? Wanted a break?’
‘I’m sure she did. I know she did. We’ve talked about it. I tried to persuade her to come and live with us a while back.’
‘She said she would have loved to. Her eyes lit up at the idea. She loves my children, absolutely adores them. But she said she couldn’t leave Mother on her own like that.’ Chiara stared at me to make sure I was listening. ‘That’s why she wouldn’t just disappear like this. She wouldn’t dream of abandoning Mother, of causing them all this pain. She’s so thoughtful. It’s just not possible.’
‘But she wanted to leave?’
She sighed noisily, almost as if she were growling at my questions. ‘She’s eighteen. Everyone that age wants to start living their own life. And she was growing resentful, secretly I mean. She never let on, but I’m sure she was wise enough to know that she was being exploited by childish parents. She was restless. She did want to find her own space, live her own life.’
‘Isn’t that what she’s doing now?’
‘No!’ she shouted. ‘No.’ She stared at me with her fiery eyes. ‘I’ve told you, she wouldn’t put us through this.’ She dropped her head as if someone had cut the puppet’s strings. ‘All I’m saying is that she was uncomfortable here. It’s a cold, loveless house. She didn’t feel at home here any more. She didn’t feel close to my parents, didn’t have any sort of bond with them other than that of the nurse for the patient. That’s no basis for a mutual adult relationship.’