He found himself in a clearing beside a thicket of chestnut trees. The ground was covered by a special kind of red and yellow daisy he’d never seen before, but which filled the air with a wondrous scent. He felt like walking on them bare- foot and was bending down to untie his shoes when he heard a loud jingling of bells. Stopping to listen, he saw a flock of small brown and white goats come out of the woods, each of them wearing a collar of bells around its neck. As the animals drew near, the jingling became a single, insistent sound, sharp and unending, growing in volume until it began to hurt his ears.
Awakened by the pain, he became aware that the sound, which persisted even into his waking consciousness, was nothing more than the monumental pain-in-the-ass telephone. He realized he would have to get up and answer but was unable; he was still too numb with sleep and all cotton-mouthed. Reaching out with one arm, he turned on the light and looked at the clock: three a.m.
Who could it be at such an hour?
The ringing persisted, giving him no respite.
He got up, went into the dining room, and picked up the receiver.
“’ llo, ’oo ziss?”
Those were the words that came out of his mouth.
There was a moment of silence, then a voice: “But is this the Montalbano home?”
“This is Mimì!”
“What the fuck . . . ?”
“Please, Salvo, please. Open up, I’ll be there momentarily.”
“Open what up?”
“Your front door.”
“Wait a second.”
He started walking very slowly, like an automaton, in fits and starts. When he reached the door, he opened it.
He looked outside. There was nobody.
“Mimì! Where the hell are you?” he called into the night. Silence.
He closed the door.
Wanna bet it was all a dream?
He went back to bed and rolled himself up in the covers.
Just as he was drifting off to sleep again, the doorbell rang.
No, it hadn’t been a dream.
Montalbano went to the door and opened it.
Mimì then pushed it forcefully from the outside. The inspector, having no time to step aside, took the full thrust of the door bodily and crashed against the wall.
As Montalbano had no breath left with which to curse, Mimì couldn’t figure out where he was and so called out: “Salvo, where are you?”
The inspector then kicked the door shut, leaving Mimì once again outside.
He started shouting: “Are you going to let me in or not?”
Montalbano opened the door again and stepped aside in a flash, standing stock-still as he watched Mimì come in, eyes shooting daggers. Mimì, who knew his way around the house, quickly raced past him and into the dining room, where he opened the sideboard and took out a bottle of whisky and a glass. Then he collapsed into a chair and started drinking.
Up to that point Montalbano hadn’t breathed a word and, still without opening his mouth, he went into the kitchen to make himself his usual mug of espresso. He’d realized, upon seeing Mimì’s face, that the guy had something very serious to tell him.
Mimì joined him in the kitchen and sat down in an- other chair.
“I wanted to tell you . . .” he began, but stopped, only then noticing that the inspector was naked.
And Montalbano, too, realized only then, and so he dashed into his bedroom and grabbed a pair of jeans.
As he was putting them on, he wondered whether it might be best to put on an undershirt as well, but decided that Mimì wasn’t worth it.
He went back into the kitchen.
“I wanted to tell you . . .” Mimì began again.
“Wait. Let me drink my coffee first, then we can talk.” The mugful’s effect was just barely sufficient.
The inspector sat down opposite Mimì, fired up a cigarette, and said: “Okay, you can talk now.”
As soon as Mimì started telling his story, Montalbano—perhaps because he was still sort of half-asleep—felt as if he was watching it on a movie screen, as if Mimì’s words immediately turned into moving images.
It was late at night. The street was rather broad, and the car advanced silently and ever so slowly, drifting past the other cars parked along the sidewalk. It seemed not to be rolling on wheels but sliding on butter.
All at once the car took off, lurched over to the left side, swerved, and parked in an instant.
The driver’s‑side door opened and a man got out, carefully closing the door behind him.
It was Mimì Augello.
He pulled the collar of his jacket up to his nose, tucked his head down between his shoulders, took a quick look around, and then, in three short hops, crossed the road and found himself on the op‑ posite sidewalk.
Keeping his head bowed, he took a few steps straight ahead, stopped in front of a door, reached out with one hand, and, without even looking at the names listed, rang one of the buzzers.
The answer came at once: “Is that you?”
The latch‑lock clicked. Mimì pushed the door open, went in‑ side, and closed the door behind him in the twinkling of an eye, then started climbing the stairs on tiptoe. He’d decided he would make less noise on foot than by taking the elevator.
Reaching the fourth floor, he saw a shaft of light filtering out from a door ajar. Approaching it, he pushed it open and went in. The woman, who’d apparently been waiting for him in the entrance hall, grabbed him with her left hand while, with her right, she closed and locked the door with four turns of the key in the top lock and two more in the bottom lock, before tossing the keys onto a small table. Mimì made as if to embrace the woman, but she stepped back, took him by the hand, and said in a soft voice: “Let’s go in the other room.”
Now they were in the bedroom, and the woman embraced Mimì and pressed her lips against his. Mimì held her tight, returning her passionate kiss.
At that exact moment, the two lovers froze and looked at each other with eyes open wide in terror.
Had they really heard the key turning in the front‑door lock? A fraction of a second later, they had no more doubts.
Someone was opening the door.He calculated that, once he got to the second floor, he would be able to grab onto a large metal pipe that ran parallel to the main door of the building and from there drop himself onto the street.
In a flash, Mimì dashed over to the balcony, opened the French door, and went outside, as his lady friend quickly reclosed the door behind him.
He heard her ask: “Martino, is that you?”
A man’s voice from inside the apartment replied: “Yes, it’s me.” And she: “Why are you back?”
“I called in a replacement; I’m not feeling very well.”
Mimì didn’t wait to hear any more. He had no time to lose, and felt utterly trapped. He could hardly spend the night cringing outside the window and had to think of a way to get himself out of that uncomfortable, dangerous situation.
He leaned out to look below.
There was a balcony exactly like the one he was on: old‑style, with a cast‑iron railing.
If he climbed over the railing he could reach the one below, keeping his hands fastened on the bars of his railing and lowering his body down, little by little.
At any rate, there was no other escape route.
And so, wasting no more time, he stood up on tiptoe, looked to the left and right to make sure no cars were coming, and, seeing that all was quiet, climbed over the balustrade, rested his feet on the outer ridge of the balcony, and crouched down. Then, lowering his legs while hanging on with all the strength in his arms, he managed to touch the railing of the balcony below with the tips of his toes.
Arching his back and swinging his legs forward, he then executed an athletic leap and managed to land on his feet on the third‑floor balcony.
He’d done it!
He leaned his back against the wall, panting heavily and feeling his clothes sticking to his sweaty body.
As soon as he felt ready for more acrobatics, he leaned out again to survey the situation.
Below him was another balcony exactly like the other two.
He calculated that, once he got to the second floor, he would be able to grab onto a large metal pipe that ran parallel to the main door of the building and from there drop himself onto the street.
He decided to rest a little longer before attempting his descent. When he took a step back, his shoulders touched the balcony’s half‑open shutters. In terror he feared that his movements might be seen or heard by someone inside the room. Turning ever so slowly on his heels, he then noticed that not only were the shutters open, but so was the window. He stood stock‑still for a moment, trying to think. Might it not be better, rather than risking a broken neck for the second time that night, to try to go through the apartment without making any noise? On the other hand, he thought, he was a cop, after all, and if he were somehow caught, he could always come up with some kind of excuse. Carefully pushing the shutters and window aside, he stuck his head into the room, which was in total darkness. No matter how hard he listened, holding his breath, all he could hear was absolute silence. Summoning his courage, he opened the window even more and stuck his head and upper body inside. He held completely still, ears peeled for any sound, a rustle, a breath . . . Nothing. The wan light from the street was enough to let him know that he was in a bedroom—which, he realized, was unoccupied.
He advanced two more steps and then an accident happened: He crashed into a chair and tried to grab it before it fell to the floor, but didn’t manage in time.
The noise it made was like a cannon blast.
He froze, turned into a statue of salt. Someone would now turn on the light, start screaming, even . . . But why was nothing happening?
The silence was even deeper than before.
Was it possible he’d been lucky as hell and there was nobody home at that moment?
He stopped and stood still, looking around to confirm this impression.
His eyes were growing more accustomed to the darkness, and because of this he thought he could make out a large dark shape on the bed.
He brought his vision into better focus: It was a human body!
How could the person possibly be sleeping so deeply as not to have heard the racket he’d made?
Mimì drew near. Touching the bed ever so lightly with his hand, he realized that it wasn’t made. There was merely a sheet over a mattress. He kept feeling around, drawing closer to the dark shape, and finally came up against a pair of man’s shoes, then the cuffs of trousers.
Why had the man gone to bed fully dressed?
He took a step alongside the bed, reached out, and started touch‑ ing the man’s body, running his hand over the perfectly buttoned‑up jacket. Then he bent down to hear the man’s breath.
And so, plucking up his courage, he laid his palm decisively on the man’s forehead.
And withdrew it at once. He’d felt the chill of death.
The images vanished.
Mimì’s words suddenly became the sound of a film reel spinning empty.
“So what did you do next?”
“I stood there without moving, then headed for the door, still in total darkness, opened it, went out and down the stairs . . .”
“Did you run into anyone?”
“No, nobody. Then I walked over to my car, got in, and drove here.”
Montalbano realized that, despite the mugful of coffee he’d drunk, he was in no condition to ask Mimì the questions he needed to.
“Excuse me just a minute,” he said, getting up and leaving the room.
He went into the bathroom, turned on the cold-water tap, and put his head under it. He stayed that way for a minute, cooling his brain off, then dried himself and went back into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, Mimì, but why did you come here?” he asked.
Mimì Augello looked at him in astonishment. “So what should I have done, in your opinion?” “You should have done what you didn’t do.”
“Since, as you said yourself, there was nobody in the apartment, you should have turned on the light and not run away.”
“So you could look for other details. For example, you told me there was a dead man on the bed. But how, in your opinion, did he die?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that I got so scared I ran away.”
“That was a mistake. Maybe he died a natural death.”
“What do you mean?”
“What makes you think the poor guy was murdered? Since you described him as all dressed up and lying on top of the bed, it’s possible the man came home, felt really bad, and had just enough time to lie down and die, maybe from a heart attack . . .”
“Okay, but what’s the difference?”
“There’s a world of difference. Because if you were dealing with a man who died of natural causes, that’s one thing, and we at the police can pretend we know nothing about it; but if the man is a murder victim, that changes everything radically, and it is our duty to intervene. But, before replying, Mimì, think it over carefully. Try to concentrate and tell me if you had any sense, even the slightest inkling, of whether the man was murdered or died on his own.”
Mimì struck a pose, brow furrowed, elbows on the table, and head in his hands.
“Try to draw on your lifetime of experience as a cop,” Montalbano urged him.
“Well, frankly,” said Mimì after a pause of a few seconds, “I did notice something, though just barely. It might just be the power of suggestion, I dunno . . .”
“Try telling me anyway,” Montalbano encouraged him. “I could be wrong, but when I went up to him to touch
his forehead, I thought I smelled something strange and sickly sweet.”
“What can I say . . . ?”
“That’s not enough,” said Montalbano, getting up.
At that moment, however, he froze, staring at Augello, who still had his face buried in his hands.
Then he leaned across the table, grabbed Mimì’s right arm, twisted it, quickly looked at it, then thrust it back at him so that it struck him in the face.
Mimì was shocked.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Look at your right cuff.”
Mimì did as told.
The edge of the sleeve’s cuff had a faint red streak.
“See? I was right!” Augello burst out. “And that answers your question: He was murdered.”
“Before going any further, I need some information,” said Montalbano.
“Well, here I am.”
“First of all: Was that the first time you’d gone to meet this woman at her home?”
“No,” said Mimì.
“How many times, my son?”
“At least six, four of them good ones.”
“And what does ‘good’ mean?”
“Salvo, it means . . . well . . .” replied Mimì, somewhat resentfully, “it means ‘good’ in the sense of . . . complete. Know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do. And the other two times?”
“Let’s just say they were partial and exploratory. But, Salvo, what do these questions have to do with anything? Do they seem so important to you?”
“Then why are you asking me them?”
“It’s an alternative option. Haven’t you realized that?”
“Alternative to what?”
“At this hour of the night, I’m faced with two options: babbling away as I’ve been doing or bashing you in the face. Therefore I advise you to answer my questions and stop making a fuss.”
“Okay,” said Mimì, resigned.
“Are you sure that during all this coming and going to and from her place, nobody ever noticed you?”
“What’s this lady’s name?”
Montalbano started laughing heartily. Mimì got upset.
“What the fuck is so funny?”
“I was just thinking that if she ever rang the station, Catarella would surely end up calling her something like ‘Jenny the Wreck.’”
“All right,” said Mimì Augello, getting up. “I’m leaving.
Have a good night.”
“Come on,” said Montalbano. “Don’t get pissed off. Sit down and let’s continue our discussion. What does this Genoveffa do?”
“Let me inform you, first of all, that she goes by ‘Geneviève.’”
Montalbano started laughing again.
Mimì looked at him sullenly, but kept on talking. “Secondly, as far as what she does, Geneviève is a housewife.”
“So, apparently, poor thing, since she gets bored during the day, finds a way to amuse herself at night.”
Mimì’s gaze turned darkened further.
“You’re wrong all down the line. Geneviève is very active and involved in many things. For example, she runs a theater workshop for kids.”
“Does she have any?”
“And what’s her husband do?”
“He’s a doctor at Montelusa hospital, and works the night shift every Thursday.”
“So you have one night per week for your nocturnal escapades?”
Mimì rolled his eyes to the heavens for help in the face of Montalbano’s incessant mockery.
Apparently his prayers were answered, because the inspector then asked: “Do you by any chance know the name of the dead man?”
“Yes, I looked at the doorbell on the landing. His name is Aurisicchio.”
“Know anything else about him?”
“Not a thing.”
“What’s wrong? Did you lose your voice?” Mimì asked anxiously.
“The fact is, you’ve created a big problem for me.”
“And what would that be?”
“How are we going to swing it so that we come to learn, officially, that there’s a murder victim in that apartment?”
“I think I have an idea,” said Mimì. “Let’s hear it.”
“What if the man committed suicide?”
“It’s a possibility, but that wouldn’t change anything.”
“Of course it would! It would change everything, because if the man killed himself, we, the police, can forget about him until someone discovers the body.”
“Mimì, leaving aside your deep sense of humanity, your brilliant idea actually complicates things. The only thing to do at the moment, in my opinion, is to arrange things so that, in one way or another, we come to know that there’s something strange in that apartment, requiring us to go and have a look.”
“And that’s just it.”
“At any rate,” Montalbano continued, “bear in mind that the first person to set foot in that apartment has to be you, Mimì, and you have to do everything within your power to touch as many things as you can with your bare hands.”
“My friend, between pushing open the shutters when entering the apartment, grabbing the chair to keep it from falling, and turning the inside lock on the front door, do you realize how many fingerprints you left in that place?”
Mimì turned pale.
“Matre santa! If this ever gets out, that’ll probably be the end of my marriage and career. What can we do?”
“For the time being, your only choice is to get the hell out of here. I’ll see you at the station this morning at eight. Is that okay with you?”
“It’s fine with me,” said Mimì, getting up and heading for the door.
Montalbano didn’t see him out; he went back into the bedroom and looked at the clock: almost four a.m. What to do now? He didn’t really feel like going back to bed, but he didn’t feel like getting dressed, either.
By now the coffee had kicked in.
All he could do was stay up and go for a walk along the water’s edge at daybreak. And so, just to ward off any un- expected bouts of sleepiness, he went and prepared a second mug of espresso.