As he strode along at a brisk pace, Giorgio Pisanelli acknowledged the greetings of almost all the people he passed with a smile or a nod of the head. He’d been born in that quarter of the city, and even during those periods of his life when work had taken him elsewhere, he’d always found the time to come back, to stroll through those streets and alleyways—the vicoli—to say hello to old friends and make new friends while he was at it. After all, he thought to himself, a quarter is a small city. Certainly, it wasn’t the way it had been in the old days anymore, not like back when being born in a neighborhood amounted to a form of citizenship, but it was still possible to feel at home as you walked the streets and side- walks that had watched you grow from a child to a youth, and finally an adult.
What’s more, Pizzofalcone was one big story, or really, a thousand different stories. According to tradition, the whole city originated there, it was the cradle it had all grown out of. A low hill that was the burial place of a mermaid, and had then expanded in concentric circles, pushing out toward the vol- cano and the surrounding highlands like a spreading oil stain. The quarter replicated in miniature the various souls of the metropolis: the flaccid and verminous belly of the impenetrable labyrinth of the vicoli, with their dark and illicit pursuits; the ancient sense of family, the acrid flavor of rivalries; the main commercial thoroughfare, lined with shops though in ever-dwindling numbers, and the office-working middle class,
felled to its knees by the economic crisis; the handsome stock exchange and surrounding businesses, where money reigned supreme and dirty business and other crimes and murders were validated with a signature at the bottom of a contract; the wealthy, triumphant waterfront esplanade, inhabited by an inbred, now anemic aristocracy with triple surnames that, behind shut windows, lived out its days in boredom, watching the passing chapters of an utterly false life.
Yes, Pizzofalcone was the perfect metaphor for the city writ large, Pisanelli thought to himself. And he and his colleagues waited downstream on the banks of this river of emotions and grief, ready to net and reel in its rottenmost fruits.
So there was nothing strange about the preponderance of depression spreading through the populace. Nothing strange about loneliness proliferating and ghosts infesting streets and piazzas. The ghosts, however, were still alive, even though you had to squint to see them, sharpening your gaze and tuning into sounds that verged on the imperceptible. And there, in the wrinkles of the silences in which they were drowning, and the boxes of psychopharmaceuticals in which they sought solace, those ghosts still clutched desperately to life.
Pisanelli knew the door through which the living turned into ghosts. He’d stepped up to the threshold of that door when his Carmen had died, leaving him bereft and alone in the darkness of a life that he no longer wanted. He’d experienced what it meant to wake up at dawn and stare at the ceiling, try- ing to come up with any good reason for getting out of bed, washing up, getting dressed. He was all too aware how slender the boundary line could be between no longer wanting to live and actually wanting to die: a line that marked the territory of suicide.
Those who put an end to their own lives were desperate to an all-encompassing extent, and therefore they took on a very particular kind of energy, a crazed determination to take themselves out of the world, to stop being part of it. The depressives—living phantoms—were different. They were in the grip of a current they couldn’t control; they let themselves be swept downstream, but they weren’t trying to leave.
This distinction was fundamental to Pisanelli, in fact, it was the reason that led him, too, to do his best to keep from throwing in the towel. Because precisely on the basis of that observation, an excessively numerous series of suicides that had transpired in the quarter over the past fifteen years, filed away as such by the authorities and quickly shunted to the cold cases archive, just didn’t add up in his view. Those dead people hadn’t wanted to die, he felt certain of it: they were depressed, lonely, and abandoned, but not the victims of any final and ultimate despair. They lacked the necessary strength, the required courage to kill themselves. The deputy captain was certain of it: those deaths had been murders. And he—none other than he, who had gazed into the abyss from which there is no return—was going to track down the perpetrator. It was just a matter of time.
Once he came to the place he was heading, he stopped to catch his breath. The old machine, he thought, was starting to shut down. It was clear that his guest was demanding more attention.
He referred to the cancer that was battening off his prostate as his “guest.” The diagnosis dated back a year, and he hadn’t followed it up with any further tests, doctors’ examinations, or analyses. He’d thought it over with a clear mind and he had concluded that any open acknowledgment of the disease would have no other effect than to put him on premature retirement, and by now all he had left to his name was the work he did and a mission to accomplish: he had to find out who was working so hard to send his living ghosts into the afterlife. Anyway, there was nothing that could be done about the guest: certain diseases have no cure, and what’s more, all he really wanted now was to join his wife, and in a hurry—sooner rather than later. His son was all grown up and had a job far away; it would only spare him the embarrassing Sunday phone call that for some time now represented their only contact. His colleagues liked him, but they treated him like an elderly eccentric, a latter-day Don Quixote who was jousting with obscure windmills.
People will barely miss me, isn’t that right, Carmen? And we’ll be able to see each other again, in a beautiful new world free of evil, where we’ll be together for all eternity.
As he was walking into that cool and sweet-smelling space, Pisanelli thought he’d heard the voice of Leonardo, his closest friend, the only one who knew about his “guest.” You’re not in charge of your life, you know, Pisane’, Leonardo constantly told him. You know that your life isn’t yours to do with as you please? You need to take care of yourself, then it will be up to Whom It May Concern to decide how long you have to live and where to send you afterward. The deputy captain, as always, would let a smile play over his face and, as always, when he thought about Leonardo, he’d gently shake his head. That tiny prancing monk with his kind eyes was the very personification of the munaciello, including the pranks and the impertinence, but his faith, crystal-clear, simple, and indestructible, was a fine thing to behold, even if he couldn’t entirely subscribe to it: it was on the foundation of Leonardo’s certainty that he based his own hope of seeing Carmen again, now free of the suffering that had haunted the last months of her life.
He stopped to let his eyes grow accustomed to the sudden
dim shadows, and then he headed toward the sacristy. The sound of something in Don Salvatore’s voice, over the phone, had worried him. He’d known the parish priest of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli for more than thirty years now. He was hardly the type to talk irresponsibly, or to exaggerate
the gravity of things happening around him. That quarter would have rejected like a foreign body any priest with an over-apprehensive personality. Father Salvatore was a well-balanced, serene individual, and even now that he was an old man, he certainly knew how to instill tranquility in those who found themselves in dire straits. To hear him sounding upset and worried constituted an unwelcome novelty.
The priest was seated at his desk, and sitting across from him was a young man dressed in a priest’s cassock, someone Pisanelli had never seen before. Don Salvatore got to his feet with some evident discomfort and walked to greet him.
“Ah, Giorgio, there you are. Thanks for coming in. Forgive me for the urgent call, but I really needed to talk to you.”
Pisanelli affectionately shook hands with the priest. “Hello, Father. You worried me, the sound of your voice when you called me . . . And we saw each other just Sunday, didn’t we? What’s going on?”
Don Salvatore introduced the young priest.
“This is Don Vito. The church curia sends him here every so often to give me a hand, because I’m old and decrepit and just can’t keep up anymore. A very welcome assistant.”
“Why, no, Don Salvatore,” the other one said dismissively, “that’s not the way it is, it’s just that the bishop is trying to relieve you of your grueling workload by offering you a second pair of hands—” Then he turned to speak to Pisanelli. “A pleasure to meet you, I’m Don Vito Zarrelli.”
He had a warm voice and gentle eyes. Pisanelli liked him instantly, and he placed great reliance on first impressions.
“All right, tell me everything.”
Don Salvatore went back around the desk, while Pisanelli took a seat in one of the chairs.
“All right then, Giorgio . . . I would have come straight to see you at the police station, but Don Vito, here, has some concerns that are, shall we say, theological in nature. As you know,
we have certain difficulties when it comes to matters of a specific nature, and coming into your office would have given the matter an official standing. We are still in the realm of the hypothetical, even if they are hypotheses that I don’t like one little bit.”
Pisanelli furrowed his brow. “I don’t follow you, Father.”
The elderly parish priest gently shook his head.
“You know that we hear confession, and it’s pointless for me to waste time explaining that we’re required to keep those confessions secret. If, for example, someone came in and con- fessed to a murder, I’d do my best to persuade them to turn themselves in, but I couldn’t come to the police and inform you of the confession. You understand that, right?”
Pisanelli nodded. The priest went on.
“And for that matter, confession is always anonymous. Certainly, we know all or nearly all of our parishioners, and it’s rare that anyone comes in here who we can’t identify, but some- times it happens.”
While he was listening, the deputy captain shot occasional glances at Don Vito; the young man was clearly in a state of some considerable discomfort. His eyes remained downcast and he kept tormenting his hands, twisting them in his lap. His breathing sounded shallow, while his feet, which he kept cross- ing and uncrossing incessantly, betrayed a bad case of nerves.
Still, Father Salvatore seemed to have no intention of get- ting to the point.
“And in confession, it sometimes happens that we are given information pointing not to a crime that has been committed, but only the intention of committing one. And then, maybe, sometimes it’s not even a crime, but just a mere fantasy. The strangest ideas pop up in people’s heads.”
Pisanelli decided it was time to weigh in. Father Salvatore was an extraordinary person, but as everyone knew who had
ever listened to his interminable sermons, he tended to run off at the mouth sometimes.
“Father, could you be a little more explicit? Have you learned something that might help us to prevent a crime? Because if that’s the case, we don’t have any time to waste, and you know that.”
The parish priest heaved a sigh.
“No, Giorgio. If that was the case, we would either have come straight into the police station or you’d never have heard from us at all; it would have depended on our decision: whether or not to reveal something that we’d learned in the confession booth. Here we’re dealing with a somewhat more complicated matter. Let us try to explain it to you.”
Pisanelli waited in silence. Don Salvatore gestured to his young assistant, who took a deep breath and then started speaking.
“A few days ago, I heard a young woman’s confession. She was a foreigner, but she spoke Italian well. I never saw her face, and by the time I got out of the confessional, she had already gone away. She didn’t stop in church to pray, the way people usually do.”
He fell silent, staring at the parish priest. It was clear that he was struggling to stick to his decision to reveal to someone other than another religious something that he’d learned in the confession booth; Pisanelli mused about just how rigid and conservative young people can be, in every walk of life.
With a gesture, Don Salvatore encouraged him to go on. “She asked a question. A . . . strange question. A worrisome question. But let me make this very clear, I never saw her, so I can’t even say whether she was asking for herself or for someone else, I just can’t say . . . And maybe it was all just a fantasy, maybe we made a mistake by calling you . . . I don’t . . . I can’t be sure that I understood correctly and, even now, when I repeat the words . . . In and of themselves, they don’t even mean all that much.”
During his career as a policeman, Pisanelli had listened to too many people confiding in him not to know that, in certain cases, you need to just shut up and wait. True, that young man might not have anything important to tell him, but then again, he might. After all, if Don Salvatore had decided to ask Giorgio to come over, there had to be something behind it.
Don Vito went on.
“It was afternoon, there weren’t a lot of people in the church. I’d already heard a couple of confessions when this young woman arrived. First she told me a couple of . . . well, anyway, nothing special, but then, all at once, as if she’d thought it over for a long time, she asked this question. At first, I wasn’t even sure that I’d understood what she was asking. I didn’t know how to answer her; I assumed she was talking about an abortion. They often do, don’t they, Don Salvatore? You must have heard it many times.”
The parish priest nodded. Then, seeing that the young man wasn’t resuming his account, Don Salvatore spoke to Pisanelli. “We’ve been informed that early this morning you found a newborn baby near a dumpster. You know how it works here at the church, Giorgio: I’d barely got out of bed when Titina came in. She’s the concierge at Vico Egiziaca, number 47, and she’d heard about it from Luisa Russolillo, who had been leaning over the railing of her balcony to hang the laundry out to dry just as your partner was hurrying into the police station.
Am I right?”
Pisanelli nodded, fascinated in spite of himself at the ways information had of spreading through the quarter.
“That’s right, Father. It’s true. And theoretically that would be a private matter.”
The priest agreed.
“Of course, of course. But the news gave us, let’s say, the last little shove that we needed to make our minds up to reach out to you, because the convergence of the two different
episodes has only made us worry all the more. All right, now, Giorgio, I know you very well, and I have for a great many years. I know that you’re an honest person and that you care about other people. You do your job with care and sensitivity, and you can understand just how delicate a situation this is. What Don Vito heard was in the context of the confessional, and we’re about to reveal part of it to you. That’s a very serious matter, you understand that, right?”
Pisanelli drew a long sigh.
“Father, I thank you for your faith in me, and I’ll do my best to ensure that that faith turns out to have been well placed, but unless you make up your mind to tell me what you know, it’s going to be rather unlikely that I’ll be able to do anything to help you. So, now tell me, what does the newborn baby we found have to do with the foreign woman’s confession that you heard?”
Don Vito looked up and stared Pisanelli in the face.
Suddenly he seemed quite calm and self-confident.
“That baby has everything to do with the confession, Dottore. If you ask us, it has everything to do with it. Because the young woman, at the end of her confession, asked me whether a mother would go to hell if she gave up her baby. Even if someone was forcing her to do it, against her will.”