It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men’s opinions; which light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties.
Monday, 12 July 1982
Spending the night at Paola’s also gave me a huge logistical gain. I was only two strides from the Vigna Clara police station and could therefore sleep in longer. And that morning I needed it. I ignored the alarm completely, having told the station I’d be late. Cristiana was sleeping at my side and from the bedroom next door there was no noise. In the end, what forced me to get up around eleven was hunger.
I didn’t even wash. In the general silence, I slipped on jeans and T-shirt and went down to the bar in the piazza. A crowd was discussing the great victory. The pavements were full of folk who should have been at the office, just like me. In the general throng, I put myself right with a tall coffee and a crème patissiere pastry.
‘On the house,’ declared the barman, obviously a football fan. ‘The only ones who pay today are the Krauts.’
I bought the Corriere dello Sport and went back to the ﬂat. I wanted to read all the details of the triumph in peace and quiet. I stretched out on the sofa in the lounge with the paper and my cigarettes to enjoy the journalists’ hype.
After a while, I heard the voices of Cristiana and Paola in the kitchen and smelled the delightful aroma of coffee. They came in with a steaming cup for me, as well as some toast and jam. They were in slippers and dressing gowns, their eyes swollen with sleep.
‘There you are, service for the sultan,’ declared Cristiana, offering herself for a kiss, which I gave her distracted and unwillingly.
‘Girls, you shouldn’t be seen up and about like this. Paola, if Angelo wakes up and sees you in this state . . .’
‘Angelo went out at seven thirty. He almost woke me up, damn him.’
I was mildly surprised, but remembered there were those problems to sort out with the priests and nuns. I dived into my second breakfast, then returned to reading the paper. My head felt bad, but my spirits were sky high.
Angelo called a little after noon. Paola handed me the phone.
‘The police are here, Michele. They’ve just arrived from your station.’ He sounded scared.
‘Your deputy, Capuzzo. Elisa’s mother made an official report of her disappearance yesterday at midnight in your office, which covers this area. I told Capuzzo I knew you, but I didn’t say you were at Paola’s. They tried to ﬁnd you at home, but don’t know where you are.’
Good man, Angelo, but this was still a real hassle. ‘I’ll be right over.’
I phoned the office, pretending to know nothing. They said Capuzzo was looking for me and gave me the number for where he was, which was Dioguardi’s office. I called and a secretary answered, who then put me on to Capuzzo.
‘What’s up, Capù?’
‘Dottore, there’s this girl gone missing. She works for your friend Dioguardi.’
‘Who reported it?’
‘The mother. She came to the station at midnight in the middle of that tremendous hell of a racket. She was with a priest. I told him the procedure for an adult is complicated, that we can’t make a move until twenty-four hours after her going missing.’
‘Exactly. Listen: between ourselves, Capuzzo, this girl’s a great bit of skirt who’ll be celebrating the victory with someone who’s a luckier man than you or me.’
‘But the priest was insistent. He must have clout because halfway through the morning came a request from the Flying Squad to go and check out the situation.’
I took some time to make myself presentable. Sure, dressed in jeans and T-shirt I hardly looked professional, but there was no time to go home and change. I made my way on foot through the many knots of idlers discussing Italy’s triumph. All the balconies were displaying the national ﬂag. It must have been the ﬁrst time since Mussolini’s era. Perhaps since the day they hanged him upside down in Piazzale Loreto. A country without honour. I squashed the thought that had gone with me throughout adolescence; this wasn’t the right moment.
The concierge wasn’t there; she was probably already ﬂying over India. In her place was a polite girl with features that said she was her daughter. I was smoking when I came to the green gate. I showed her my police ID and entered with the cigarette in my mouth. I was now no longer Angelo Dioguardi’s friend on a visit, I was the police. Just let Count Tommaso dei Banchi di Aglieno try to piss me off with his medieval rules and regulations.
The reﬂection from Block A told me that Manfredi was on the lookout. I was so ill disposed to him I was on the point of gesturing with pouted lips and one eye closed, Mussolini style. I conﬁned myself to waving the cigarette in a sign of greeting. I hoped he would tell his arrogant shit of a father. I knew that all this aggression was justiﬁed only by feeling I’d cut a stupid ﬁgure on my single brief encounter with the Count. Knowing it only made me angrier.
Capuzzo was waiting for me in Angelo Dioguardi’s office. My friend looked as if he’d slept little and badly – dark rings under his blue eyes, which were bloodshot. He was unshaven, his fair hair all over the place.
It was really too much. I took him to one side.
‘What the hell’s happened to you, Angelo?’
He shook his head.
‘We’re two turds, Michele, two turds.’
‘OK, perhaps I should have taken it seriously last night. But Elisa’s only knocking around with a friend.’
‘You’re a real piece of shit,’ he said to me.
This was truly an insult. It had never happened since we’d known each other. I decided to forget about it, knowing that Angelo’s sensitive nature was very different from mine.
‘So, Capù, who saw the girl last?’
‘We don’t know, Dottò.’
‘What the hell does “we don’t know” mean?’
‘Her clocking-off card was stamped six thirty, but Signor Dioguardi told us that he went away at six ﬁfteen with you and the Cardinal, and the only ones who live in the other block went away at the same time you did. That young priest, Paul, had already left when you arrived, and the concierge went to Mass at six, before taking the bus to the airport. She was seen in church, but the village where she’s staying in India has no telephone and so—’
I stopped the stream of words. Capuzzo had been extremely efficient up to this moment, but this wasn’t the point.
‘OK. So the girl left a little after we did, two hours before the ﬁnal, perhaps with the idea of going home to her parents. Then she’ll have met someone she knew who took her to watch the match in a beautiful villa at the seaside and she’s still there with him recuperating after a long night.’
‘No,’ said Angelo, giving me a dark look.
‘No? And how do you know?’
‘I already told you that Elisa’s not the kind to—’
I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to one side. ‘Listen, you pillock, you can think that this kid’s a bloody saint, but I believe I know women better than you do. Your little goddess has spent Sunday night fucking someone, the lucky bastard. And tonight she’ll come back home saying, “Sorry, Daddy, sorry, Mummy . . .” ’
Angelo brusquely turned his back on me and went out.
‘Then go fuck yourself, Angelo Dioguardi!’ I shouted after him.
Capuzzo looked on, appalled.
‘The girl’s an adult, Capù, and the law’s clear. In these cases we can’t do a thing unless there’s an official report. Yesterday the concierge told us she’d gone up to her after ﬁve, just before Angelo and I arrived. Even if she clocked off at six thirty, let’s say she disappeared at ﬁve. Get a photo of her from the mother; she won’t have any difficulty getting a good one. But not in swim suit, or we’ll have thousands of sightings from sexually excited fanatics. Anyway, it’s enough to see her face not to forget her.’
I carefully stopped myself from saying that I’d heard her on the phone myself around ﬁve o’clock, a few minutes before Angelo came to pick me up at the station.
Capuzzo took note. ‘Dottò, what should I say to the parents and that priest?’
‘Tell them that these are the procedures in this free state with a free Church. And not to be a pain in the arse.’
I went off without even saying goodbye to Capuzzo. I was furious about the ﬁght with Angelo and the cheek of Cardinal Alessandrini.
By the fountain, I met the lean kid with the glasses who I’d seen with Elisa from Angelo’s office window. He looked lost
‘Where are you going?’ I asked him brusquely.
He gave a half jump from fear and I saw the small gold cruciﬁx swaying around his neck.
‘Oh! Who are you?’ he asked me in an uncertain voice, adjusting the glasses on his nose.
Of course, the right and proper thing. I showed him my police ID and he became even more nervous.
‘OK, where are you going?’
‘To see a friend of mine, but I’m not sure if she’s there.’
‘And who’s your friend?’
‘She’s called Elisa Sordi. She works in the office on the second ﬂoor of Block B.’
‘Was she with you last night to watch the match?’
He turned pale.
‘With me? No, I was at home with my parents.’
‘You didn’t see Elisa yesterday?’
He thought for a minute.
‘Yes, just for a moment straight after lunch. Why are you asking me all these questions?’
‘Because since yesterday after work Elisa hasn’t been home to her parents.’
‘Oh, my God,’ he muttered.
‘You think that’s odd?’
He hesitated again.
‘Yes, it’s very odd, because—’
‘Because she’s a very good girl, I know. Is she your girlfriend?’
He stepped back and blushed, running a hand through his smooth fairish hair, and adjusted the glasses again.
‘No, no. We’re friends, close, but—’
‘OK. And what’s your name?’
‘Valerio. Valerio Bona.’
‘All right, Signor Bona. Elisa’s not there. Go home. I’m sure you’ll see her tomorrow.’
I was angry, but I didn’t want to ruin the day. On the way back to Paola’s I bought the Gazzetta dello Sport. I wanted to read another take on our triumph. When I got back I was covered in sweat from walking in the sun. In the ﬂat the air conditioning was on and Cristiana was waiting for me on the bed wearing only her panties. She was on the phone.
There was little else to discover about her after that night and I wanted to read the paper. But I noticed she was on the phone to her ﬁancé in Milan.
I pulled off her underwear while she was promising caresses to her fancy man.
Cristiana woke me in the later afternoon. ‘There’s someone called Capuzzo on the phone.’
What a pain in the arse, having to get back to work.
‘Capù, what the hell do you want?’
‘Sorry, Dottò. I took the liberty of calling you here—’
‘It’s all right, Capù. What’s up?’
‘The girl’s not come home.’
I looked at the time. A quarter to six.
‘OK, let’s circulate word of her disappearance.’
‘Already done, Dottò. That priest – the Cardinal – came here at ﬁve. He’s made some phone calls and Chief Commissario Teodori’s turned up.’
‘And who the hell’s he?’
‘Flying Squad, section three,’ said Capuzzo in a funereal voice. ‘He told me to ﬁnd you straight away, so I took the liberty . . .’
Section three. The Homicide Squad. This was Cardinal Alessandrini and the power of the Vatican. So much for a free state. The Pope chose the head of government, the cardinals chose who was to investigate the presumed disappearance of an adult girl.
I swallowed a whisky to calm myself and smoked yet another cigarette. Then I took a taxi to Via della Camilluccia. Waiting for me in Elisa’s room were Capuzzo, Cardinal Alessandrini and a hugely obese man with his tie loosened and his thin white hair dishevelled, who introduced himself as Chief Commissario Teodori. They were sitting around the girl’s desk. I had the impression that Alessandrini recognized the crumpled T-shirt and jeans he’d seen me in twenty-four hours earlier, but he made no comment about it.
‘Good day, Balistreri,’ said Teodori by way of greeting, without offering his hand or inviting me to sit. His tone certainly wasn’t cordial.
Well, I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a priest and a fat deskbound bureaucrat. I didn’t say hello to anyone, but took a chair and sat down.
‘You’re already up to date with the problem, Balistreri,’ Teodori continued.
Old policemen irritated me in general; they were out of place. It was a profession to follow from age thirty to ﬁfty, then give over. That is, for the unsuccessful, obviously.
Better to starve to death than ﬁnd yourself at ﬁfty still in the service of this arsehole of a state.
Besides, as my teachers said at secondary school, Michele Balistreri didn’t recognize authority either by age or profession. ‘Severe problem with ignoring authority, linked to childhood traumas in his relationship with his father’ as the psychologist diagnosed years later when he examined me for recruitment into the Secret Service.
‘I’ve already arranged for a notice to be circulated, Teodori,’ I declared, omitting the courtesy of a title, as he’d done with me. Then I looked at Cardinal Alessandrini. ‘But I see that divine justice considers this insufficient.’
While Teodori’s face went up in ﬂames, Alessandrini’s opened in a smile.
Real power wears a cloak of cheerfulness.
‘Don’t take this badly and please excuse me, Dottor Balistreri,’ he said, giving me the impression that he was emphasizing the title for Teodori’s beneﬁt. ‘The fact is that in these things you have precise rules which you have accordingly observed, but these rules are for normal situations, which I do not believe this to be.’
And obviously between my judgement and his, it was his that counted for more. I didn’t refer to this in any way – there was no need. Besides, the presence of Teodori bore ample witness to it.
‘On the basis of his knowledge of the family and Signorina Elisa Sordi, the Cardinal considers a voluntary absence of such length implausible,’ Teodori explained, as if I were a stupid child and hadn’t taken this on board.
I decided not to help extricate Teodori from the difficult situation by telling him what he should do.
He turned to the Cardinal, a little embarrassed.
‘Naturally, Eminence,’ he went on, ‘Dottor Balistreri has followed procedures.’
I noticed the slight trembling of his sweaty hands. The room was stiﬂingly hot, despite the fact that someone had opened the window after raising the blind. Elisa’s ﬂower was still there on the windowsill.
‘Now, however, the case is being handed over to the Flying Squad. A purely cautionary measure, naturally. The local station and its officers will continue with investigations, but I have already given instructions that they are to be intensiﬁed,’ continued Teodori, speaking to the Cardinal.
I looked at Capuzzo, who was staring at the ﬂoor. It wasn’t true; there was nothing to intensify. Teodori was telling the Cardinal a lie.
The Cardinal read my thoughts.
‘In what way will they be intensiﬁed, Dottor Teodori?’
I saw the fat man turn pale and look at me uncertainly. But I was damned if I was going to help him out – the semi-retired bureaucrat could sink in his own shit.
‘We’re going to send out the details to the border police and Interpol,’ he said at last.
He was lying, and knew he was lying. Perhaps he could push procedures forward by alerting colleagues on the Italian borders, but being a pain in the arse to Interpol over an adult girl who had disappeared a little over twenty-four hours ago, without any sign of kidnapping or act of violence… Alessandrini decided to take pity on him and rose from his seat.
‘Very well, Dottor Teodori. Please thank the head of the Flying Squad for his help so far on our behalf.’
On our behalf. On behalf of whom? His and the parents of Elisa? Or the Vatican hierarchy that had called the Minister of the Interior? Perhaps the Pontiff himself?
There was a knock on the door. Father Paul appeared, looking younger and more lost than usual.
‘Eminenza, I going San Valente if no more use to you . . .’
Huge improvements: verbs in the present participle. The Yank was making progress.
‘Wait for me downstairs, Father Paul,’ Alessandrini told him sternly.
I had the feeling that what he had to say wouldn’t be pleasant for Father Paul, whose eyes wandered around the room and came to rest on Elisa’s desk where they remained for a second. Then he went out, followed by the Cardinal.
‘This is a real problem, Balistreri,’ said Teodori, sweating like a pig while he ﬁlled his pipe, spilling tobacco all over Elisa Sordi’s desk. I suddenly realized that the meeting and impromptu search of the evening before had compromised anything that Forensics might want to carry out in the room should it become necessary.
Capuzzo looked at me in alarm. He knew what I thought about detectives who smoked a pipe: low-grade imitators of Maigret. But I didn’t say anything. My absence from the office could cause me some difficulties, but fortunately I had Angelo and the faithful Capuzzo to cover for me.
‘A real problem? Why is that, Dottor Teodori?’
‘Because this isn’t any old residential complex.’
He was irritated, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that investigative efforts should vary according to what was being investigated. He had the yellowish eyes of someone who suffered from liver problems and had blotchy skin that also suggested heart troubles. He made me feel sick, him and what he represented.
‘Because of Cardinal Alessandrini?’ I asked ingenuously.
Teodori swept his heavy sweaty hand over Elisa’s desk, disturbing several papers.
‘Not only that. In the other block lives someone far more important than the Cardinal: Count Tommaso dei Banchi di Aglieno, a senator and president of the Italian Neo-monarchist party.’
‘I met him yesterday afternoon, then I saw him again going out about a quarter past six,’ I offered innocently.
‘I know, and do you know where he was going? To a meeting with the Minister of the Interior,’ said Teodori, shaking his head in a worried manner, bearing witness to the calibre of person a man like the Count might be, who could have a meeting with a powerful Christian Democrat minister on a Sunday afternoon.
‘But he was with his wife,’ I observed.
‘He’ll have taken her somewhere else before going to see the Minister. Have you realized who we’re dealing with here?’
I had understood, but Teodori felt obliged to inform me in detail. This was a great family with castles, estates and its roots in medieval Italian history. The Count’s father’s brother had fought on Franco’s side with the Fascists and after the war had run off to Africa, where he’d accumulated great wealth and property. Count Tommaso’s father had fought with the 10th MTB squadron and, when the association between the House of Savoy and Mussolini was broken off, had remained on the King’s side. After the war he presided over the pro-monarchy committee that lost the referendum in 1946, and following this dishonour had shot himself in the head. Count Tommaso was fourteen years old and had assumed the burden of bringing the monarchy back to Italy.
Elisa Sordi, on the other hand, was a beautiful girl from one of Rome’s working-class districts who just happened to be in the paradise of a residential complex surrounded by young males and powerful adults.
‘Capuzzo, naturally you checked if there were—’
‘Everything checked, Dottor Balistreri – everything. Despite the all-night uproar of celebrations, no deaths reported. Only some injuries from ﬁreworks and some youths falling off car roofs – nothing serious.’
‘We can do nothing but wait,’ said Teodori.
‘Yeah, apart from alerting our colleagues on the frontiers and Interpol,’ I added sarcastically.
Teodori turned his yellow eyes on me. He wondered if I was more ignorant or arrogant.
‘Naturally,’ he said at last. ‘However, let’s hope this beautiful girl is somewhere about sleeping it off with a friend after celebrating all night.’
Clerics and aristocrats. Mussolini had always distrusted both their tribes. He’d ﬂattered them to keep them happy in order to hide the basic distrust he felt. And I felt the same way too. But I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be fucked about as he had.
We agreed to get back in touch with Teodori the following morning. Then I tried to ﬁnd Angelo, but one of his colleagues said he’d already left. I called Paola’s apartment. Cristiana replied.
‘They’ve gone out. Paola had tickets for Aida at the Caracalla Baths. Can you come and pick me up, Michele?’
I made up an excuse. Having by now got to know all about her, I didn’t want to risk her leaving her ﬁancé. I wanted to spend the evening drinking and trying to pull in some bar, far away from the luxury life, illustrious people and Elisa Sordi.
Friday, 16 July 1982
For several days there was neither sight nor sound of her. Teodori, whom I spoke to every day on the telephone, maintained that the girl’s disappearance could be an ‘elopement’, possibly even abroad. She had done it secretly, perhaps, because she was lacking the courage to be open about it.
I tried not to think about it, squashing the thought like an annoying insect. I hadn’t seen or heard from Angelo and had shut myself away between the office and the studio ﬂat in Garbatella, rotating the casual female company picked up in Trastevere’s bars and dives. I was smoking more than usual, drinking more than usual, and screwing more than usual. More than anything else, I didn’t want to be alone. As if those things could keep away the gnawing pangs I felt over Elisa Sordi.
Teodori called me on the Friday. A tramp sleeping on the exposed gravel bed of the Tiber, just past Ponte Milvio, had sighted the body of a woman on the riverbank. I shot over there with Capuzzo, as if speed at that moment could have compensated for the time lost when it might have helped in some way.
On the dry gravel bed, exposed by the summer drought, a knot of policemen was grouped around the corpse. The girl was naked, the body attacked by insects was in an advanced state of decomposition, covered with injuries from rats and shrubs along the river, together with obvious knife wounds and cigarette burns. Although heavy blows had devastated the face, I could see it was that of Elisa Sordi. There was no mistaking that incredibly beautiful hair, the ﬁgure, the colour of her skin. I had seen other cadavers but this death was new to me; it went way beyond the circle of violence that the violent knew.
Teodori was standing in front of the corpse looking stunned and white as a sheet, his hands trembling, sweating as if he had a fever in his absurd suit and loosened tie. Capuzzo was holding on to his stomach and trying to breathe deeply, his mouth gaping wide. I had to take control of the situation. I sent Capuzzo away before he threw up. A forensic pathologist was bent over the girl’s body.
I went up to Teodori. ‘We should clear everyone away so that Forensics can—’
‘Of course, of course!’ he said, shaking himself. He gave some orders and we were left alone with the pathologist.
‘Is it Elisa Sordi?’ Teodori asked me. It was as if she were a rela¬tive and I was there to identify her.
I nodded yes, then walked away to have a cigarette. At the top of the slope, a line of the usual curiosity seekers had formed along the road. They were lazily licking away at ice creams, craning their necks the better to enjoy the spectacle. I called Capuzzo and two officers to move them along. When I ﬁnished the cigarette I went back to Teodori, who was talking to the pathologist.
‘She’s been dead for days. There are several signs of violence to the body beyond the bites inﬂicted by the rats. I’m afraid it was a long and painful business. Unless she was dead before the blows and the burns – but the autopsy will tell us this.’
Teodori seemed lost in who knew what thoughts.
‘And the cause of death?’ he asked.
The pathologist shook his head.
‘I don’t think she drowned. She must have been dead already when they dumped her in the river. Cardiac arrest or suffocation, but we’ll see. Anyway, she’s been dead for several days, perhaps even since last Sunday.’
I looked with different eyes at that young, devastated body. I thought of that summer, twelve years ago in 1970, while I was escaping over the sea from what I had left in the sea, and from the mistakes I never wanted to call sins, as Christians do. That chain that linked up paralysis: guilt, remorse and repentance. The soul’s invisible blood. Wounds that never heal.
I found them sitting on a bench in the police station: parents who would now and forever be in tears. A friend had told them after hearing news of the discovery on the radio. It was the wonderful new world of news in real time with a plethora of private radio stations hunting for the sensation that only bad news could guarantee. No one was taking any notice of the two poor things. Police officers and members of the public walked past them, going about their everyday business. From an open office door you could hear the laughter of those making plans for the weekend.
When they saw me coming, they rose to their feet like two well-disciplined schoolchildren and immediately I realized I couldn’t look them in the face. Signor Amedeo put an arm round the shoulders of his Giovanna, who was crying silently. In the summer half-light of that squalid office my eyes went from Amedeo Sordi’s grey jacket that was too large for him, to the furrow in his brow now deeper than the lines scored from cheek to mouth in his pale complexion, to the single tear running from Giovanna Sordi’s eyes, to the beam of July sunlight that came in through a window and reﬂected on the glossy photo of her daughter that she was holding in her hands. They spoke not a word and asked me nothing.
The last thing these two parents needed was the condolences of a young policeman frustrated by his own incapacity. In the end I managed a bureaucratic ‘I’m sorry for your loss’. Then I shut myself in my office. What was I sorry about? The destruction of a young life, the life crushed out of two parents? That weekend perhaps I wouldn’t be dancing and getting drunk in the discotheques along the beach and getting my end away with whoever wanted it. I might even manage a troubled sleep. And so on for several days, a week perhaps. Then I’d start my routine again: office, poker, whisky, women, sleep.
But those two parents would never sleep easily again. Every night they would look in at their only daughter’s bedroom, as empty as the rest of their lives. And they’d think of me, blind drunk, saying ‘Perhaps Elisa’s gone to watch the game with some friends.’
I squashed the thought angrily. What’s done is done. Only the future counts.
I downed a bottle of whisky and found myself reﬂecting drunkenly on the fact that this wasn’t the usual childhood melodrama that the infant Mike had fed himself on. I was no longer the ‘Michelino’ who watched Westerns, the fearless cowboy who killed all the bad guys. I was a man of thirty-two who didn’t give a shit about anyone, not even himself. I knew the reasons well enough – they were all very clear.
And now what the fuck was I looking for? Did I want to absolve myself? Did I want to avoid eternal remorse by ﬁnding evil? And what was evil?
It changed little; fate was not in agreement with me anyway.
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The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini. Copyright © 2011 by Roberto Costantini. English translation copyright © 2013 by N S Thompson.
First published in the Italian language as Tu Sei Il Male by Marsilio Editori in Venice in 2011. First published in Great Britain by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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