Colomba followed Lupo, entering the center of Montenigro for the first time since she’d been a child. Now many of the houses in the little village that dated back to Romanesque times stood abandoned and in ruins. For the most part, it was inhabited only by old people who rounded out their pensions by hunting for truffles, and now the old folks were all out in the street, eagerly watching in spite of the risk of freezing to death. There were even a few new houses, the kind you’d find on the outskirts of Milan. The Melas home was one of these: ochre yellow with a large veranda propped up by garish fake-marble columns.
A small knot of soldiers were stamping their feet to keep warm behind the two-toned tape that was blocking access. An elderly brigadier let them through, and Colomba instinctively reached into her pocket to flash her police badge. Of course, it was no longer there. On her last day in Rome she’d hurled it against the wall of the squad room, coming dangerously close to hitting the chief of the Mobile Squad in the head. Maybe they’d melted it down, or crushed it in a hydraulic press. She had no idea what they did with the badges of officers out on extended leave.
They put on latex gloves and shoe covers, taking them out of a card- board box on the front steps. “Any signs of breaking and entering?” she asked.
Lupo shook his head. “I haven’t seen any.”
The snow had started falling again, thick and fast; the rain gutters were gurgling and the windows were so many blind, luminous eyes. They passed a front hall filled with shoes and umbrellas and entered the villa’s kitchen. Colomba saw a bottle of mineral water overturned in the sink, with an almost complete print of a bloody hand. There were more handprints on the refrigerator, and on the floor was an array of bare, bloodstained footprints. Colomba felt sure they belonged to the boy.
“What a mess,” she muttered.
“Yes, Tommy made quite a mess. The fingerprints are his, we checked it out on the fly while we were changing him.”
Colomba followed the crimson fingerprints down a hallway whose walls were covered with photographs of birds of prey, and then into the living room. On the main wall hung the wedding pictures of Signor and Signora Melas. Signora Melas was projecting a virtual fountain of uncontainable joy in her white wedding gown, too tight around her stout hips, while Signor Melas stood, lithe and athletic in his black suit, smiling into the lens.
Lupo removed a sheet of paper from the breast pocket of his shirt and put his glasses back on. “They got married a year and a half ago, according to their residence permits. But we just took a quick look at the system, there was no time to do any more searching than that.” He used his elbow to shove open the door into the master bedroom.
“They were killed in here, and it’s not a pretty sight,” he said. “You can spare yourself the experience, if you prefer.”
“I’m sure I’ve seen worse,” said Colomba.
She was right, but the scene was still quite repugnant. The bodies of the Melases, man and wife, looked as if they’d wound up under a truck, if the driver had then put the truck in reverse and run over them again a couple more times for good measure. They lay in their blood-drenched bed, he on his side, his legs tangled in the covers, a hand half-detached from the wrist, and she on her back. The woman’s right leg had slid to the floor, as if it had been nailed down while she was trying to escape, the bone of the tibia protruding from the flesh. The blows had been so violent that his red-striped pajamas and her lace-trimmed nightgown were in shreds. Colomba decided that the mortal blows must have been to the head. The back of the man’s skull had been flattened, his scalp shoved forward until it sloughed over onto his forehead; the woman’s head, in contrast, ended above the eyebrows, where there was nothing but a slosh of gray matter and hair. Colomba felt the taste of the lemon rising up from her stomach. “Did you find the weapon?”
“Not yet. What do you think it could have been?”
“From the indentations, probably a hammer, and a heavy carpenter’s hammer, for that matter, with a square face. A big one, too.”
“And how many assailants do you think there might have been?” “I’m not a ‘white jumpsuit,’ ” Colomba replied in a flat tone, using the jocular nickname for members of the forensics squad.
“But you were on the homicide squad, you must have seen more things than I have.”
“I can make some educated guesses, such as that the blows were delivered with a single weapon, used in alternation between the two victims.” Colomba pointed at the ceiling. There were arcs of blood that intersected like the beams in a barrel-vault ceiling. “. . . The vertical swipes were produced by the murderer when he raised the weapon after inflicting the blow. While the horizontal swipes were—”
“—when he changed targets. Back and forth,” Lupo said, proving that he knew more than he was saying. “So there might have been just one attacker.”
“There could have been ten, if they’d just handed the weapon from one to the other and were careful to maintain the same angle of attack.”
“But you have to admit that that’s unlikely.”
Colomba hesitated, undecided about what answer to give. She didn’t like Lupo’s persistent stance. “Let’s get out of here.”
They went back to the living room, under the eyes of the photos of the murdered couple. Colomba could imagine the pictures on their headstones, not too far in the future.
“Do you think it was a robbery?” asked Lupo. “Well, what do you think?”
“I’m usually called upon to investigate calf rustlers and quarreling neighbors,” said Lupo, with a shrug. “My opinion isn’t worth a plugged nickel.”
“I’ve seen experienced officers lose their lunch at the sight of corpses in these conditions. You seem quite at your ease.”
“Sometimes cattle thefts can go horribly wrong.”
Colomba shook her head: if Lupo wanted to go on playing the ignorant rube, that wasn’t her problem.
“A robber will kill out of fear, to keep from being identified, or as a punishment for victims who’ve refused to go along. The Melases, in contrast, were murdered in their sleep, or just about.”
“And considering that a hammer isn’t the kind of murder weapon we’d expect from a hardened criminal, what are we supposed to think? That this was a crime of opportunity? A crime of passion?”
Colomba finally saw red. “Just stop beating around the bush. You think it was the boy who did it. You’re just hoping he’ll sob on my shoulder and confess.”
Lupo smiled. “What can I say, Deputy Captain? I’m open to all pos- sibilities.”
“What motive would Tommy have had?” “The boy is sick, he doesn’t need a motive.”
“Autism is a syndrome, not a disease,” said Colomba. “People with severe cases, like Tommy, do sometimes hurt other people because they don’t know how to control their own strength or because they have violent outbursts of anger. Slaughtering your own parents in their sleep is quite another matter.”
“Jeffrey Dahmer was autistic.”
“Maybe he had Asperger syndrome,” Colomba replied. “That’s very different from Tommy, who isn’t capable of taking care of himself. He could have caught his parents off guard, but his movements aren’t coordinated enough to be able to kill them both before they had time to react. You saw the way he moves.”
“He might have been lucky.” “Let’s take a look at his room.”
At first, Colomba thought she’d walked into a broom closet. The one window had been covered with a large piece of cardboard and there was only a single bed, a footlocker, and a small cabinet without doors, containing Tommy’s clothing. The sheets were decorated with Disney characters, and there was an old PC on a small table, next to an equally old ink-jet printer that was, however, perfectly maintained. But what caught Colomba’s eye were the photographs of her. There were at least a hundred of them, either printed on copy paper or cut out of newspapers. Tommy had hung them up so that they practically covered the walls and part of the ceiling.
“Quite a spectacle, isn’t it?” said Lupo. “Do you think that they forced him to stay in here?”
Colomba studied the room. “No. There’s no bolt on the door, there aren’t any ropes. Maybe he was just more comfortable having it like this.”
“Maybe he thought he was a vampire.”
Colomba pretended not to hear him and instead inspected the bed and floor. Sheets rumpled, no blood: Tommy hadn’t gone back to his room after finding his parents dead. Or after killing them. He’d run away without putting on anything heavy to keep him warm. Nothing but the clothes he’d been sleeping in. “Sergeant Major, could you leave me alone in here for a few minutes?”
“Is there some problem?”
“No, I just want to have a moment or two to think things over and get a general idea.”
“Don’t take too long, if you don’t mind. If someone happens to see you here, I’ll have a lot of explaining to do.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Lupo left the room. Colomba waited until the rustling sound of the shoe covers had faded away, then turned on Tommy’s computer, hoping it wasn’t password-protected. It wasn’t. She quickly found the folder containing the pictures of her and deleted it, then emptied the trash and started the disk-scrubber program. A good technician could no doubt recover those pictures, but not the first reporter to pay a bribe to gain access to the interior of the house. She turned the computer back off and tore the pictures off the walls, starting with the one of her in her uniform, with the gold braid of a full detective. Some of the pictures were printed on the letterhead stationery of a certain Dr. Pala, Psychiatrist and Developmental Therapist for the Young; the address was in a neighboring town. She crumpled those sheets over the big ball of papers she’d already crushed together and stuck the whole agglomeration under her jacket. With the walls bare now, the room seemed even darker and more unsettling. Dante, she decided, would have died if he’d been confined to a place like that. Maybe it was the other way around for Tommy, though.
He walked two miles, don’t forget that.
She turned off the light and left the room, discovering immediately that she’d really had no time to waste, because a van with the logo of the SIS was parked just outside the front gate. The “white jumpsuits” were almost fully dressed and were briefly lingering in conversation with Lupo. She pretended not to have seen them and quickly but nonchalantly darted around the corner of the house, where she set fire to the crumpled ball of paper with the matches she still had in her pocket. By the time Lupo caught up with her, there was nothing left but a will-o’-the-wisp clump of ashes and a vague outline of scorched cinders.
Lupo shook his head. “Well done. Very nice work! Thanks for having treated me like a complete idiot!”
“They would have been on the front pages of the newspapers even before the pictures of the victims,” Colomba replied, in all sincerity. “I used to have people sneak into my apartment in Rome to tell me about their theories. I don’t want them to know where I live now.”
“The only reason I’m not going to file a criminal complaint against you is that I respect what you’ve been through. But don’t push your luck, ‘heroine of Venice.’ ”
“Don’t call me that,” Colomba snarled.
“I didn’t make up the phrase. So now do you intend to do what you promised?”
“You mean, am I going to help you frame Tommy?”
“I don’t want to frame anybody. I just want to avoid wasting a lot of time spinning my wheels.”
“No doubt they’ll send someone down to help you with the investigation.”
“This is my district, Deputy Captain. Are you coming or not?” “Whatever the boy might tell me, I’m not going to testify. He’ll have to tell someone else the same thing, of his own free will.”
“Any other conditions or stipulations? Do you want a stretch limousine?”
Colomba shook her head. “I just want you to forget that you know where I live. Do you think you can do that?”
Lupo nodded. “Let me show you the way.”
From Kill the King by Sandrone Dazieri. Used with the permission of the publisher, Scribner. Copyright © 2020 by Sandrone Dazieri.