Excerpt

Flowers Over the Inferno

Ilaria Tuti, translated by Ekin Oklap

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Flowers Over the Inferno, a debut by Italy’s Ilaria Tuti, which introduces a compelling new protagonist, the gruff, slightly sardonic, but soulful Superintendent, Teresa Battaglia, who, in partnership with a young and inexperienced city inspector, is called to investigate the gruesome murder of a man in the Italian Alps.

The body lay on the grass, covered in frost, the pallor of the skin in stark contrast with the black hair on the head and genitals. Beneath it all, the murky green of mountain vegetation. Pockets of snow persisted in shadier spots close to the woods. Some snow had fallen overnight and a few crystals had become trapped in the body’s eyelashes.

The dead man lay supine, arms by his sides and hands resting on pillows of moss. There were no scratches on him. The odd winter flower with faded, transparent petals emerged from between his fingers.

It all looked like a painting, with a color palette of blood gone cold, veins emptied out, and stiff limbs. The cold had preserved everything. There was no smell apart from the smell of the forest: wet earth and rotting leaves.

Someone had taken good care of him. The ground around the body had been laid out with rudimental booby traps of string tied into slip knots.

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“To keep animals away from the body. To make sure it stayed intact until we found it,” spoke a rough voice into the microphone of a mobile phone, lips pushing out words and a cloud of warm breath. All around was a hive of quiet activity, white overalls, flashing cameras and lights.

“No signs of manual labor: the hands are smooth and there are no scratches on the wedding band. The nails are neat. There doesn’t seem to be any dirt.”

The wedding band on the body’s left ring finger gleamed in the bleak December light; despite the layer of flat clouds that shaded that corner of the world.

The man’s face had been viciously assaulted, but the rest of the body seemed unharmed. Blood vessels of an intense blue were visible beneath the skin on either side of the neck. The man had shaved on the day he died. The shadow of a beard they could now see was caused by the postmortem tightening of the skin on his face.

“Minimal signs of hemorrhage, not compatible with the severity of the wounds inflicted. There is likely to be more blood on the clothes, which would have been removed after the fact.”

A pause.

“The killer stripped and prepared the victim.”

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Despite the meticulous arrangement of the scene, there were prints everywhere, on the body and on the ground— now a cross between mud and ice—as if the perpetrator had somehow forgotten to take care of the most basic of details. There was only one other set of footprints apart from the victim’s own, and judging by their size—a 10—they belonged to a man.

There were no signs of ligature anywhere on the dead man’s arms, wrists, or ankles. The victim had been tall and robust, of relatively athletic build, yet the killer had managed to overcome him easily. He had attacked with animalistic fury.

You knew the killer; that’s why you didn’t immediately try to defend yourself. What went through your mind in that moment, when you realized you were about to die?

It was hard to tell from the expression on the body’s face. The lips were sealed shut, and the eyes . . .

The dead man lay supine, arms by his sides and hands resting on pillows of moss. There were no scratches on him.

The body had been left in a spot between a natural drainage ditch and a walking path that was used by tourists throughout most of the year. A hiker had found it a few hours earlier. It was neither a coincidence nor a mistake; the assassin had deliberately chosen not to hide it.

“I see no signs of sexual activity, yet the killer stripped the victim.”

The chief of the local police force had informed them that the body belonged to a family man who had disappeared two days ago after dropping his son off at school. His car had been found about a hundred yards from the body, shielded from view by trees. It had been pushed off a cliff. There were footprints and tire marks on the ground above.

“The killer travelled on foot. The footsteps lead to the forest.”

Detective Superintendent Battaglia paused the voice recording and looked up at the sky. A few crows squawked overhead. Dark clouds carried the threat of snowfall.

They were running out of time. They had to move faster, be more efficient.

Battaglia rose to stand, joints aching. Too many days spent kneeling on the ground. Too many years of this work, perhaps. A little extra weight that should have been shed long ago.

“Hurry up with that evidence.”

The forensics team were crouched over the ground, silent white shadows trained to catch details that were invisible to others. They took photographs, collected evidence, and filed everything away. This was where the DNA chain of custody began. It would reach completion a few hours later in a lab at the Forensic Medicine Institute back in the city, sixty miles away.

The arrival of the police had attracted a handful of curious bystanders. A gaggle of tourists and locals lingered beneath the wooden sign that pointed the way to Travenì, the nearest settlement. It was only two and a half miles away. It was easy to tell the locals apart; they all had wild, ruddy complexions and none of that neat ski-slope tan. Their skin had been roughened by the extreme temperatures, and hewn raw by the wind.

“We found the clothes,” someone shouted from the forest. Superintendent Battaglia’s first thought was that it looked like a scarecrow.

The figure jutting out through the brambles looked incongruous in the undergrowth. It was made of sticks and rope, a few leafy branches, and blood-soaked clothes.

The head had been formed by stuffing the victim’s undershirt with leaves and straw, and placing two crimson berries for eyes. His jacket and trousers hung limp over the wooden skeleton, and his watch had been fastened to a branch that served as a wrist. His shirt was stiff with dried blood. It was hard to tell what color it had been before.

An officer approached them.

“The trail ends at some rocks about a hundred meters north of here,” he reported.

The killer knew how to get around. He was a local and knew this place well.

Battaglia picked up the microphone once more, eyes roaming over the clearing where the translucent body lay gathering the snowflakes that had just begun to fall. Someone was covering the body up with a tarpaulin.

“The effigy is a representation of the killer. He stood here contemplating his work, and wanted us to know . . .”

A sudden noise interrupted this analysis. The superintendent turned to watch the scene, perplexed. A man was making his way through the clearing, past the police cars and toward the woods, his feet sinking into the marshy ground every few steps. His tailored blazer flapped in the wind, his shirt was stained with mud and sleet, and there was nothing to shield him from the bitter cold. He looked defiant, but also flushed with fatigue. Or perhaps it was discomfort and embarrassment.

When the superintendent realized who it might be, the only word for it was: “Shit.”

***

Massimo was shin-deep in the bog.

A range of emotions lashed his face: anger, discomfort, disbelief, and above all, shame. Deceptive patches of grass kept giving way under his feet as he tried to clamber over them, plunging him into pools of clinging mud.

The eyes of countless strangers were upon him. He had just been transferred to this precinct, and this was his new team. That must be his new boss, watching him from the edge of the woods.

The snow, which had previously seemed unsure whether to fall at all, had thickened now. It brushed over his burning cheeks; its weight lingered on his skin and was gone in the time it took to blink.

Massimo willed himself to look up. Superintendent Battaglia was an olive-skinned man in his forties, slightly shorter than Massimo himself, currently observing him with narrowed eyes and a cigarette between his lips. A fellow officer had pointed Massimo in that direction, and he’d immediately set off, ignoring the officer’s shout of warning. He had marched forward in a show of confidence, and only when he’d found himself sinking into the swamp had he realized why the officer had looked so worried.

He would never forget this day for as long as he lived. He’d arrived at the police station a few minutes late that morning, and had sat waiting in a corridor for half an hour until someone had deigned to tell him that his team wasn’t there because they’d been called out for a suspected homicide. No one had bothered to wait for him or leave a message. They’d simply forgotten him.

I was only five minutes late.

No one had bothered to wait for him or leave a message. They’d simply forgotten him.

At first Massimo thought it was a joke, but the officer had been deadly serious; Battaglia does not have a sense of humor, he’d assured him. Neither do you, thought Massimo, looking at the man’s face.

There were only two things left for Massimo to do: sit and wait for the squad to return to the headquarters, or go out and join them, wherever they were.

Regrettably, he’d chosen the second option.

He hadn’t anticipated having to drive for almost two hours in a torrential downpour that kept dumping sheets of water onto the asphalt, his face pressed to the windshield while the Sat Nav went haywire. And when he’d finally reached the valley, he’d had to deal with the ice. The car kept skidding over sharp, slippery turns, making his heart skip several beats. Once or twice he got stuck on an upward slope because he had the wrong type of tires on, without the kind of grip needed to deal with icy roads. Then, a passing tractor had stopped in front of him. The driver, an old man with wine on his breath and an unsteady parlance, insisted on helping Massimo. This kind of thing always happened with tourists around that time of year; he’d be happy to haul Massimo’s car to level ground.

“Timber, manure, or cars, makes no difference to me,” he’d said.

Massimo had accepted the offer with a reluctant shiver. With one last worried glance at the car, he’d hooked the tractor chain to the bumper, jumped back inside, and shifted to neutral.

And that was how he’d arrived in Travenì: hauled by a tractor.

The muscles in his back had seized up from the stress, he had a pounding headache, but at least he could concentrate on the view. There was a primitive beauty about that landscape, the kind that made you lose your bearings. Snow-capped peaks towered over a millennial forest, soaring like dull blades over a thick woodland carpet. They stood like mythical titans and compelled you to turn your face upward while a sense of vertigo filled your soul. Clear rivulets swept nimbly around rocks, icicles, and fragrant moss, gushing through the undergrowth of pine trees and bilberry shrubs. Massimo had noticed numerous animal tracks in the snow lining the road.

It was a world far removed from the one he was used to, a world that whispered of human insignificance, and hinted at the senselessness of worldly concerns. It was a natural paradise—but nowhere near pristine. One side of a mountain was almost completely bare; parked on a plateau were bulldozers and other excavation tools next to a group of sheds that served as a construction site. The slope was being cleared of trees. Massimo had looked away, as if he’d seen a blemish on an otherwise beautiful painting.

It was a world far removed from the one he was used to, a world that whispered of human insignificance, and hinted at the senselessness of worldly concerns. It was a natural paradise—but nowhere near pristine.

Beyond the last few hairpin turns, on an elevated plain suspended over the bottom of the valley, lay the settlement of Travenì. It was a village ensconced in the hollow formed by a surrounding ring of peaks. Its homes, built in the alpine style, were made of stone and wood; the scent of resin emanated from tidy stacks of wood outside every door. The style of the buildings changed near the small area that constituted the town center, where the buildings were taller, pastel-colored, with Nordic-looking attics, ivy for Christmas decorations, and red bows on the balconies. Along the high street were some traditional diners and restaurants, as well as a grocery store and two coffee shops. Teenagers milled about in packs outside the pub, nursing glasses of mulled wine with their snowboards tucked under their arms; the ski slopes weren’t far. There was also room for a pharmacy and a couple of high-end clothing stores for tourists.

The owner of the tractor had left Massimo and his car in the town’s main square, refusing the money the stranger kept trying to press on him. He’d raised an arm in salutation and honked once as he drove off. Massimo had looked around. The settlement was like a scene from a postcard except for several leaflets pinned to the noticeboard outside the town hall, announcing a meeting at the school gym that night: the valley’s residents were invited to assemble in protest against the construction of a new ski resort. Massimo recalled the construction site he’d seen earlier on one of the mountains, and the trees that had been cleared. Even here, far from the city, it seemed there was no peace to be had.

He hadn’t had too much trouble finding his squad; the body had been discovered just outside the town, close to the Austrian border. There was a dirt road that led there through screes and groves of low pine trees. The police had already restricted access to the area with roadblocks on either side of the road, an officer meticulously recording the license plates of every passing car and the features of those curious faces that leaned out to try and catch a glimpse of what was going on.

That was the officer Massimo had shown his badge to, and whom he’d asked about Superintendent Battaglia. Shortly thereafter, he’d ended up in the bog he was still struggling through.

At least his boss was no longer paying attention. He was talking to an old woman who was bundled up in a thick coat that almost reached her feet. She was hard to miss: her hair, styled in a bob with bangs, was dyed a synthetic shade of red that clashed with the gentle, harmonious hues of their surroundings. She was pointing at something in a ditch that led into the woods, while Battaglia nodded.

She must have been a witness. Perhaps she’d been the one to find the body.

A few more steps forward and Massimo finally reached them. Someone offered him a hand to help him out of the swamp; he accepted it with an awkward word of thanks that came out like a mumble.

For the first time since he’d graduated from the academy, he felt like he was being tested. He was out of breath and his palms were clammy despite the freezing cold. He could not have made a worse start if he’d tried.

“Inspector Massimo Marini,” he said, holding out his hand to Battaglia. “I’ve been assigned to your squad. Nobody told me about the body, otherwise I would have come earlier.”

He had no idea why he’d said that. He could tell how petty he sounded, like a sulking child.

His outstretched hand was ignored. He lowered it in surrender. This day was not going to get any better.

The man looked at him without saying a word. There was a moment when he appeared to shake his head a fraction, as if in secret warning. It was the older woman who finally spoke.

“The victim didn’t bother warning us either, Inspector.”

Her voice was hoarse and her manner suggested she deemed him utterly inconsequential.

“Nobody told me to look for a woman, Superintendent.”

Massimo studied her. Her roguish fringe, sticking out from beneath the rim of a sequined woolly hat, seemed out of place on a face that bore the signs of age and was marked by a hardness that presaged an equally difficult personality. Her bright eyes pierced through him like a pair of thrusting hands, scouring his face as if in search of some kind of proof. She was chewing on the temples of a pair of glasses. Massimo saw she had thin lips; she would purse them every now and then as if weighing up a thought—or forming a judgment.

The heavy coat she wore was tight across her thighs and revealed a stocky build.

A police officer approached them, holding a mobile phone. He handed it to the woman.

“It’s the district attorney calling for you, Superintendent.”

She nodded and stepped away to take the call, scowling at Massimo.

Massimo froze. He barely registered that the man he’d assumed was Battaglia was now shaking his hand and introducing himself as Officer Parisi. His mouth had gone dry and he could feel the first signs of hypothermia. He tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t make him sound like a complete idiot, but when he saw her hang up the phone, the words he finally managed to utter turned out to be far from appropriate.

“Nobody told me to look for a woman, Superintendent.”

She regarded him as if he were a piece of excrement stuck to the sole of someone else’s shoe.

“The thought never even crossed your mind, did it, Inspector?”

***

Inspector. He was little more than a kid, and looked like he’d just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Teresa had smelled his cologne from yards away. He struck an unseemly note in that narrow mountain moor now filling up with snow and with blood washing off the moss and into the soil—the blood of a man who had been killed in a manner even police officers would rarely see in the course of their careers.

Massimo Marini had a handsome face veiled by a thin shadow. He hadn’t shaved. Something must have gone wrong for him that morning. Perhaps more than one thing, judging by his appearance. He hadn’t gotten off to the best of starts; the young man’s attempt to seem determined had backfired rather spectacularly. But everyone deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt, Teresa thought, even when it seems like a lost cause.

She wondered why he had requested a transfer from a big city to this small provincial precinct. What was he so eager to leave three hundred miles behind?

We run away from what scares or hurts us—or from what holds us captive.

Perhaps it was a failed relationship that he hadn’t quite gotten over. But his face bore no signs of anguish or sleepless nights—only tension, the cause of which was Teresa, and not some blushing maiden. There must be something else that had driven him away.

He stood still as snowflakes began to gather on his shoulders, more stooped now than when he’d first arrived.

Teresa suppressed a smirk. She delighted in stretching newcomers’ nerves to breaking point, and she wasn’t about to make an exception now. There had been something almost pitiful in the way he’d looked at her, like a lost puppy. Teresa knew that for a moment, he’d been scared—scared that he would be reprimanded, scared that he’d been rude, scared that he might have come across as an amateur when he’d wanted so much to impress everyone with his confidence.

She took no more notice of him, and turned to address Parisi, resuming the discussion that had been interrupted by the inspector’s arrival.

“We should search the canal, too, through the vegetation down there,” she said.

The officer nodded.

Teresa glanced at Marini. She wondered where he’d left his coat, or whatever it was that he normally wore to shield himself from the cold. She refrained from asking the question.

“Will you take a look, Inspector?” she said instead.

He looked aghast for a moment. But he didn’t ask for help; he lowered himself into the canal, clinging onto the overhanging branches so as not to tumble into the stagnant water.

Teresa shook her head. What was the use of an ego that size, other than for making life harder?

He did go straight in, though. We didn’t have to ask twice.

That, at least, was a good sign: he was willing to do anything to make amends.

Parisi made to remove the special footwear he’d donned for the search and pass it on to his bedraggled colleague, but Teresa stopped him.

They watched together as the inspector’s shoes were sucked once more into the mud, sinking into the fetid remains of rotting leaves and God knows what else.

Teresa almost felt sorry for him, though it was an amusing sight.

“What am I looking for?” he asked after poking about blindly for several minutes.

So finally he’d managed to ask for help. Progress.

“The eyes,” Teresa replied. “We haven’t found them yet.”

__________________________________

From FLOWERS OVER THE INFERNO. Used with the permission of the publisher, Soho. Copyright © 2019 by Ilaria Tuti. Translation copyright © 2019 by Ekin Oklap. 




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