Authors: Jonathan Holt
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign. Secondly, a just cause. Thirdly, a rightful intention.
– Thomas Aquinas,
IT WAS THEIR
biggest night of the year, although you would have been hard pushed to find it advertised anywhere – anywhere, that is, apart from certain obscure internet bulletin boards and special-interest websites, where previous years’ efforts were still talked about in the ecstatic tones usually devoted to cup finals or rock festivals. It certainly wasn’t listed in the official programme of Venice’s annual Carnevale, although it was inextricably linked to that event in spirit as well as timing. Many of the attendees had flown in specially; for them, this night was as close to the official celebrations as they would come.
At midnight, the club’s two thousand square feet of interlinked dance floors – and, even more importantly, the warren of dimly lit rooms that lay behind them – were almost deserted. But by half past, the queue of people waiting to use the lockers thoughtfully provided by the management stretched out almost to the parking lot, where security personnel in tuxedos and bow ties were checking names against the list of ticket-holders. By 1 a.m., the main dance floor was full.
To anyone unfamiliar with these occasions, it made an incongruous sight. Every participant wore a carnival mask, ranging from the classic blank white Volto, topped with a tricorne hat, to more elaborate affairs modelled on the rays of the sun, the birdlike beak of a medieval plague doctor, or the jewelled visage of an eighteenth-century courtesan. But in almost every case, these costumes ended at the shoulders. From the chest down the partygoers were dressed more conventionally; the men in smart trousers and expensive loose shirts, the women in short skirts and tops, in accordance with the club’s strict dress code.
By two, the reason for this had become clear. The clothes were starting to be discarded. Women danced topless except for their masks. The men tended to keep more on – at least, until they joined the throng making their way to or from the smaller rooms. There were more bars back there, where you could strike up conversations with other couples before making your choice. But most headed directly to the playrooms, where the dim lighting was colour-coded to signify when a particular room was dedicated to a particular pleasure. In some, knots of bodies joined and re-joined, their masks still in place. In others, the masks themselves were an impediment to the enjoyments being sought, and were discarded.
In every playroom discreet stacks of towels, and bowls of flavoured condoms and mints, fulfilled the promise on the club’s website to provide an impeccable standard of hygiene as well as the best music, lighting and atmosphere in Europe.
The slim female figure wearing a gold Columbina mask with grey feathers paused at the entrance of one of the playrooms. Inside, half a dozen couples were making love, the whole scene illuminated only by the jerky flashes of a strobe. Behind the feathered mask, her eyes were wide as she took it all in.
A voice in her ear said, amused, “Shall we join them?”
Without turning round she said, “You can if you want. I’m just going to watch.”
The man reached for the hem of her T-shirt. “Let’s take this off, at least.”
“No,” she said, putting her hand on his to stop him. “You have fun if you want. Just not with me. That was the deal, remember?”
Slipping away without a backward glance, she made her way to the next room. In the lemon-coloured light, two women knelt in the middle of a small circle of masked male figures. The girl watched for a while, then moved on.
Another room was completely dark: a notice by the door invited those who entered to take off their clothes and use their sense of touch. Almost regretfully, she turned away. In a small bar she stopped to look at a long-legged blonde who was lying on her back across a low table, a man at either end. Several couples stood around, drinks in hand, watching.
“Hey, beautiful.” A man with a thick body-builder’s torso, improbably tanned for the time of year, spoke to her in guttural English. “My wife thinks you’re hot.”
Shaking her head with a quick, regretful smile, she headed back to the dance floor. There was a platform at one end where two professional dancers, one male and one female, performed non-stop, their bodies gleaming with oil and sweat. The male dancer’s chest was thin as a rock star’s, but rippled with muscle. She watched him for a while, copying his movements, abandoning herself to the pulsing beat.
“Hiya.” A masked girl a few years older than her smiled a greeting over the music. “Having a good time?”
The girl leaned in closer. “You need anything sorted? Pills, coke, cheap cigarettes…”
“Uh… Maybe some cigarettes.”
“Talk to him.” The girl pointed to where a young man with striking blond dreadlocks and a Trifaccia mask stood slightly apart. “Whatever you need. He’s cool.”
Nodding her thanks, the girl in the feathered Columbina made her way over to the young man. “Hey,” she said casually.
Looking round quickly, he pushed open a fire door and motioned for her to step outside. She did so, shivering as the cold, foggy air hit her. “I hear,” she began, but the words were hardly out of her mouth before she felt strong arms pinning her from behind. The Carnevale mask was plucked from her face, and some kind of bag made of heavy cloth dropped over her head in its place. More hands fastened round her calves, the two-man team lifting her as effortlessly as if she were a shop mannequin being moved to a different window. She felt herself propelled forwards, then lowered onto a hard surface that gave beneath her assailants’ weight as they clambered in after her, rapidly securing her legs and arms with what felt like plastic strips.
I’m in a van
, she thought.
They’ve put me in a van.
It must be the police.
Then, moments later, came the realisation that the Italian police would never hood her like this. “Dad?” she said hesitantly, just before a thick strip of tape was wound round her mouth, hood and all, muffling even the scream that belatedly escaped her. Terror and panic flooded her limbs, but though she bucked and jerked frantically, like a landed fish, she was too tightly secured to free herself.
She heard doors slam, felt the van move off. The whole thing had taken less than thirty seconds.
A hand held her down, and a male voice spoke close to her ear, crooning some words in Italian before switching to heavily accented English.
“Stay still, Mia. Stay still and I promise you’ll be all right.”
He knows my name
, she thought, and the realisation was even more terrifying than anything else that had happened so far. She felt her bowels clench and unclench, and struggled without success to keep control of her bladder. Then a sweet-smelling liquid soaked the hood around her nose, and the darkness came racing towards her.
COLONEL ALDO PIOLA
of the Venice Carabinieri woke with a start, unable at first to remember where he was. Nearby in the darkness a white screen flashed, and a tinny speaker played a pop song. He recognised the tune as one his nine-year-old son had been listening to recently, by the American singer Pink, and felt a twinge of annoyance. Claudio must have changed his ringtone as a joke, or – more likely, he thought, his irritation replaced by a sudden surge of tenderness and guilt – in the hope of getting his father’s attention at work.
There was no light by the sofa, so he answered by feel. “
“Colonel, it’s Saito. Apologies for waking you at this unfortunate hour.”
Piola had no idea what the hour was, but if something was serious enough to require a call from his
generale di brigata
, the time was hardly relevant. So he said only, “No problem.”
“We’ve been asked to oversee an investigation at Vicenza. Some human remains have been found at that new American military base they’re building.”
Piola noted the curious use of “human remains” instead of “body”. “Who found them?”
“A local boy, engaged in some kind of protest. Hence the ungodly hour. Unfortunately there’s no one of your rank available over there – Serti’s on a training course, and Lombardo’s assigned elsewhere.” General Saito hesitated. “There’s a sense it should be someone senior, so that it’s clear we’re taking it seriously.”
Ah: so it was a matter of politics. If it involved the US Military, perhaps that was no surprise. “Speaking of commitments, you’re probably aware there are some administrative matters taking up my own time just now.” Piola crossed to the door and flicked on the light switch as he spoke. The sofa, covered with one of his son’s cast-off AC Milan duvets, sprang into view, along with the alarm clock balanced on one of the arms. It was 4.32 a.m. He reached for his trousers, the phone still clamped between his shoulder and ear.
“Indeed. To be frank, Aldo, that’s why I thought of you. A quick and professional investigation, tactfully handled by an experienced officer, is all that’s required here. It shouldn’t be too time-consuming. And it won’t hurt with Internal Affairs to have the Americans putting in a good word.”
“I understand. Thank you.” Through the open door Piola caught a movement across the corridor, a nightgown ducking back behind a doorframe. It was Gilda, his wife, trying to overhear. “Sir,” he added, to make it clear that it was work. The nightgown disappeared.
“Thanks. A car’s on its way. Keep me informed, won’t you?”
By the time Piola had rung off, his wife had gone back to bed, her door shut against him. He knocked softly. “I have to go out,” he said through the wood. “I’ll see you tonight, shall I?”
There was no reply.
So that he wouldn’t disturb his family any more than he had to, he went and waited in the street, hoping the driver would have the sense not to use his siren. The
, the fog which blanketed Venice and the surrounding Veneto region most nights at this time of year, was especially thick tonight. It had drifted into Venice the day before from the direction of the sea, slipping up the canals and their smaller brethren, the
; sliding over pavements and door sills into cloisters and courtyards, so that what had started around 4 p.m. as nothing more than a faint opacity in the air turned, as dusk fell, into a dense, otherworldly miasma that muffled church bells and gave every streetlamp a hazy aura, like a dandelion-clock. It brought with it a salty, numbing cold, the cold of the lagoon and the Adriatic, and Piola kept his jacket well zipped up. Normally he wore plain clothes for investigations, but since this one involved the US Armed Forces he’d opted for the working Carabinieri uniform of dark, pleated trousers, well-polished black shoes and dark blue windcheater. The lapels of the windcheater bore three silver stars above a three-turreted castle. Not that the Americans would be impressed by his rank, but it would do no harm to remind them that the Carabinieri, like themselves, were a military organisation. He placed his colonel’s hat under his arm, making a mental note not to forget it when he put it down, as he usually did.
He was in luck: the car had its blue light on but no siren. The driver, Adelmio, had even thought to bring coffee. Tipping the contents of the tiny carton down his throat, Piola was also pleased to discover that it was laced with a generous
“Who’s there so far?” he asked as they drove.
“Dottore Hapadi, sir. He was the one on call. And a few of our lot – I think they’re the local boys.”
“Know anything about it?”
Adelmio shrugged. “Not much. A skeleton, I heard. But it was on the construction site, and it was protestors who found it, so…”
Piola nodded his understanding. The new American base being built at the disused Dal Molin airfield, just a few miles from the existing garrison at Caserma Ederle, was one of the biggest building projects in northern Italy, matched only by the flood barriers in the Venetian lagoon. Both projects were controversial, but in the case of Dal Molin the controversy had quickly turned to something more.
Many local people had already been uneasy about the number of US Military installations ringing their city, from underground missile silos to vehicle compounds. Others had been riled by the way the Americans appeared to have been able to bypass the usual planning procedures, their very presence sanctioned by secret agreements dating back to the Second World War. In 2007, a hundred and fifty thousand people had joined hands around the centre of Vicenza – a UNESCO World Heritage site – symbolically forming a wall around their city to show that it would be defended. A proposed referendum on the new base had been mysteriously cancelled at the last minute by the courts; undeterred, the Vicentini vowed to go on protesting, even establishing a permanent “peace camp” adjacent to the construction site. It seemed to make no difference whatsoever to the work, which according to the local papers was due to be completed in record time. But Piola had no doubt that a Carabinieri investigation would be seen as a significant event by both sides.
a skeleton – which would certainly explain Saito’s reference to “human remains” – it might of course be an ancient one, in which case no criminal investigation would be required. Such skeletons turned up quite often during construction work in the Veneto, which was densely populated even before the time of the Roman Empire. But Piola also knew that a body buried in the region’s damp soil could be reduced to bare bones in months, and building sites had long been favoured by the Mafia as a convenient place to get rid of their victims. It was best to make no assumptions.
The drive took about forty minutes. They left the deserted A4
by the Vicenza Ovest exit, then sped up Viale del Sole.
The fog had thinned a little as they came inland, so Piola was able to get some glimpses of the old airfield as they approached. The perimeter had mostly been boarded off, providing an irresistible temptation for fly-posters and graffitists. Slogans denouncing the Americans – “
No Dal Molin!
Fuori Dalle Balle!
” – were in turn partially covered by banners depicting smiling men in crisp black suits. There were elections coming up for the regional parliament, and these gameshow-host faces were the candidates. But access gates and stretches of chain link also allowed a glimpse of what lay within. Jagged spills of mud, like frozen waves, were proof of the pace of construction, as were the clusters of metal cranes that climbed into the fog like fairytale beanstalks. What caught the eye most, however, were the great corkscrews of coloured smoke – green, white and red – that fizzed up into the night sky, turning the fog itself into a giant, glowing Italian flag.
“I heard the protestors let off flares,” Adelmio said. He pointed to a blue pulse over in the distance. “That’ll be us.”
Sure enough, by a gap in the boarding marked “Gate G” they found two parked Carabinieri vehicles, one with its light still flashing. A uniformed
saluted Piola as he got out of the car, but it was a man in American grey-green combat fatigues who hurried forward, greeting him in passable Italian.
“Colonel Piola? Sergeant Pownall, Military Police. I’ll be escorting you to the scene. If you wouldn’t mind putting these on.” He handed Piola a fluorescent jacket, a hard hat, and a laminated card on a ribbon. On it were the words “VISITOR – TEMPORARY PASS”. Piola put it all on without comment, then followed the man to a waiting Jeep.
When they were under way, bumping and sliding over the rough ground, the sergeant spoke again. “Nothing’s been moved or disturbed. Your medical people got here around an hour ago.”
“When were the remains discovered?”
“Approximately two-thirty. We had a security ingress – protestors cut through the padlocks and forced open a gate. The gates are alarmed, and our cameras have night-vision capability, so we were well prepared for them. They let off these flares you can see, sprayed some graffiti, then split up. Two chained themselves to cranes – those are my biggest headache; we’ll have to call in abseilers to cut them loose. My men followed another to a 319D – that is, one of the big excavator trucks. By the time they caught up with him, he was on his phone to the police, saying he’d seen a skeleton in the tipper. One of them went to check, and it turned out he was right. At least, there
Piola noted the implication. “You don’t believe the rest of his account?”
“Well, sir, I don’t want to pre-empt your investigation. But on the cameras, we could make out that he was carrying a large holdall when he broke in. It seems possible he brought the skeleton with him, threw it in the truck himself, and then reported it, in the hope of holding up construction.” Pownall glanced across at Piola. “No offence, Colonel, but Italian bureaucracy can be notoriously slow, and it wouldn’t be the first time the antis have tried to get us tangled up in red tape. That’s why we made sure we got the Carabinieri, rather than the State Police, to run this investigation. You people get that this is a military schedule we’re dealing with.”
Piola chose not to respond directly to that. “Have the protestors broken in before?”
“Negative – this would be the first time since Transformazione began.”
” Piola echoed.
Pownall shrugged. “That’s what the consortium call it. I guess you’ll see why. It’s rather more than your typical building project.”
In fact, Piola could still see very little. Tattered fronds of fog greyed the Jeep’s headlights as they drove. He thought he glimpsed some earthmovers to their left, through a gap in the fog, but appearances were deceptive: it was at least another minute before the Jeep drew up beside them.
As he followed Sergeant Pownall towards the vehicles, stepping gingerly through the mud in an effort to preserve his shoes, he realised why he’d been confused about the distance. The machines were vast – at least twice normal size, the tyres alone the height of a man. On the door of the nearest one, some graffiti had been sprayed – a round circle with an A in it, like the anarchy symbol, except that there were also a smaller D and M nestled between the A’s feet. The graffiti was very recent, the black paint still running in the moisture-laden air.
The truck was so big that to see into the tipper he had to climb a ladder that was placed next to it. Peering over the edge, he saw two white-suited figures crouched amongst a heap of rubble, examining some bones by the glare of a portable arc light. Piola made out a skull, brown with age, and below it the hoops of a ribcage. Nearby, but separate, was a leg, still attached to a foot.
“Good morning, Dottori,” he greeted them. One of the figures looked up.
“Ah, Colonel. I was beginning to think we wouldn’t see you before breakfast.” Hapadi’s voice was muffled by his mask.
“I’m not sure why I’m here at all,” Piola said. “As opposed to someone more local, I mean. What can you tell me?”
The forensic examiner pulled down his mask and stood, stretching to ease the stiffness in his back. “I’d say it’s a man, from the size of the pelvis. DNA will confirm it – we’ll have to use mitochondrial, there isn’t enough adipose for a conventional assay.”
Piola nodded, although he barely understood these technical details. “Any idea when it dates from?”
They both knew this was the crucial question, and Hapadi’s voice when he answered was cautious. “Well, I doubt it’s pre-medieval. But neither is it fresh – the discoloration’s too evenly spread for that. There are some fragments of fibre that might help, probably from a khaki jacket, and he has an interesting distortion of the left wrist that could indicate pre-vaccination poliomyelitis – he’d have had a distinctive withered left hand, by the way. To be honest, dating skeletons is specialist work. I’ll have to find someone who’s more familiar with the tests than I am.”
“Any thoughts on how it got here?”
“It looks as if it was tossed in by someone on the ground – the bones are clearly positioned on top of the spoil, not amongst it. The force of the impact is what caused the femur and pelvis to separate, I imagine.”
“So it could have been thrown in only a couple of hours ago?”
“Possibly. I’m aware that’s what’s being hypothesised.” Piola caught the wariness in the doctor’s voice. “But you should be able to prove or disprove it easily enough.”
Hapadi crouched down again. “See here, how earth has filled the pelvic cavity? If it was carried here, some would have fallen out along the way. Your skeleton will have left a trail of crumbs, Colonel. Like Hansel and Gretel.”
“Thank you, Dottore. That’s very useful.”
As Piola started back down the ladder, Hapadi added, “You didn’t ask about cause of death.”
Piola stopped. “That’s because I didn’t think you’d be able to tell me.”