As Montalbano stood blissfully under the warm, long-awaited water of the shower, he started thinking about that morning of mix-ups.
He’d mistaken the more dangerous man, the one with a knife, for the weaker one; the carabinieri had mistaken him for a brawler; and Adelina had mistaken an honest man for a thief. And since trouble always comes in fours—he thought, coining a new phrase—he became absolutely certain that very, very early that morning, he had killed an innocent fly, mistaking it for the guilty one.
Before leaving the house, he looked at himself in the mirror, as was his habit. He had a dark circle around one eye, just like a clown at the circus, and a swollen ear.
No matter. He wasn’t exactly trying out for a beauty contest.
“Did Gallo ever come back?” he asked Catarella upon entering the station.
“Yessir, Chief, ’e got back jess now. How d’ya feel?”
“Can ya tell me sum’n, Chief?”
“Seein’ as how ya got a black eye ’n’ all, wha’ss the woild look like tru’ that eye? Is it all black?”
“How d’ya guess, Cat? Now, tell Gallo to come to my office.”
Gallo appeared at once.
“How’d things go at the emergency room?”
“Fine, Chief. All they found was a large contusion, so they gave him some painkillers and I drove him home. He told me to tell you he’ll be coming by here around four this afternoon.”
Gallo had just left when Mimì Augello came in.
He took one look at the inspector, smiled, then assumed a serious expression, made the sign of the cross, brought his hands together in prayer, bent at the knee, pretending to genuflect, and raised his eyes to the heavens.
“What’s this little comedy routine for?”
“I was saying a prayer of thanksgiving for whoever it was that gave you a black eye.”
“Stop being a wise guy and sit down.”
At that moment Fazio came in without knocking. He was frowning and looked upset.
“Chief, sorry to ask, but was it the carabinieri who put you in that state?”
Montalbano felt mortified.
How on earth had the story already spread all over town? The gossip and laughter couldn’t be very far behind. And if the news ever reached the commissioner’s ears . . .
“I don’t believe it! You were arrested and beaten up by the carabinieri?” Augello asked angrily, springing to his feet. “Just chill out, boys,” said the inspector. “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, because there really is no reason to be declaring war on the carabinieri. I can explain everything.”
And he told them the whole story, down to the fine details. When he’d finished, he asked Fazio:
“And how did you find out?”
“Marshal Verruso, who’s an acquaintance, told me in strictest confidence.”
Montalbano heaved a big sigh of relief. That meant the story would remain confidential.
“Any new developments?”
“At my end of things, there was just a stolen car whose owner didn’t realize it was gone until he got back from abroad,” said Augello.
“I, on the other hand, have an interesting story to tell,” said Fazio.
“Let’s hear it.”
“Late last night, after the rest of you had already gone home, a man showed up here, a certain Agostino Smerca, to report something that had happened to his daughter, Manuela.”
“And what was that?” Augello asked impatiently.
“This Manuela, who’s a rather attractive woman of thirty—Smerca showed me a photo of her—lives with her father, who’s a widower, in a small house a bit off the beaten track. She’s a teller at the Banco Siculo and gets off work at six-thirty every evening. Since she doesn’t like to drive, she takes the circle line and then has to walk for another ten minutes to get home. About a week ago—actually, five days ago, to be exact—after getting off the bus, she was walking along the road, which is almost always deserted, when she saw a car stopped with its hood raised and a man looking inside at the motor. Just after she walked past it, she felt the barrel of a gun pointed into her back, scaring her nearly out of her wits, and heard a man say: ‘Don’t scream or I’ll kill you.’ Then she felt him press something over her nose and mouth, which turned out to be a handkerchief or gauze pad soaked in chloroform, after which the poor woman passed out.”
“So why did this Smerca wait all this time to report the incident?” asked Augello.
“Because his daughter didn’t want him to. She didn’t like the idea of everyone in town talking about her.”
“Was she raped?”
“So what’d the guy kidnap her for?”
“Well, that’s just it. In fact he didn’t do anything at all to her. Nothing. The woman woke up again an hour and a half later, out in the open countryside. Her purse was right beside her, and when she opened it, nothing was missing. So she tried to get her bearings, realized where she was, and called a cab from her cell phone. And there you have it.”“Well, that’s just it. In fact he didn’t do anything at all to her. Nothing. The woman woke up again an hour and a half later, out in the open countryside.”
“Maybe he’d mixed her up with someone else,” said Augello.
Hearing mention of another mix-up, Montalbano, who’d been silent up to that point, gave a start. Not another mix-up! One more on the same day, and he just might lose his mind. He wanted to say something, but then thought better of it and remained silent.
“I guess it could have been any number of other things,” Augello continued. “What’s this Smerca do for a living?”
“He’s a businessman. A textile wholesaler.”
“There you go. Maybe he missed a payment to the protection racket. They were sending him a warning.”
“Mimì,” said Montalbano, finally entering the discussion, “if this was a Mafia case, you can be sure Smerca wouldn’t have come and reported it to us. He would have worked it out on his own.”
“That’s also true,” Augello agreed. “And what if the girl just made the whole thing up?”
“Why would she do that?”
“Maybe as an excuse, to explain to her father why she was getting home late . . .”
“Come on! A woman of thirty, in this day and age?”
“And what do you think?”
“At the moment I don’t think anything. But I do smell something fishy. The whole thing doesn’t make any sense. I’d like to talk to this girl in person—but just her, without her father around.”
“If you want, I’ll ring her and tell her to come by this afternoon. What time would be best for you?” asked Fazio.
“I’ve got an appointment at four. But it shouldn’t take long. Five would be fine.”
Entering the trattoria, he immediately noticed that Enzo, the owner, didn’t seem his usual jolly self. He looked rather taciturn. Since Montalbano considered him a friend, he asked him:
“Is anything wrong?”
“Feel like talking about it?”
“If you would be good enough to give me fifteen minutes of your time after you’re done eating, I’ll tell you everything.”
“Just tell me now.”
“Because eating, like sex, wants no worries.”
In the face of such ancient wisdom, Montalbano could only submit.
In fact, he had himself a feast, just to spite the carabiniere corporal who had arrested him.
When he had finished, Enzo took him into a windowless closet next to the kitchen and closed the door. They sat down in two half-collapsed wicker chairs.
“What I’m about to tell you took place six nights ago, but my brother Giovanni just told me about it yesterday afternoon. Giovanni has a thirty-year-old daughter, Michela. She’s a level-headed girl and works at the Banca di Credito.”
Montalbano had a sudden intuition.
“Was she by any chance kidnapped and released shortly afterwards perfectly safe and sound?”
Enzo looked at him in amazement. “She certainly was. But how did you—”
“Another very similar incident occurred the very next day. I would like to talk to this niece of yours.”
“My niece is right here. I called her after you said you could give me a bit of your time.”
“Go and get her.”
Enzo went out and returned with a good-looking brunette with a serious air about her. He introduced them to each other.
“If you don’t mind,” the inspector said to Enzo, “I would like to speak to her alone.”
“I don’t mind,” said Enzo, going out and closing the door behind him.
The young woman clearly felt awkward and intimidated.
The inspector beamed her a big smile of encouragement.
The girl replied with a forced smile.
“A pretty nasty experience, I guess.”
“I’ll say!” said the girl, shuddering at the memory. “Do you feel up to telling me what happened?”
“Well, I live with my boyfriend in a small new apartment building in Via Ravanusella. Do you know where it is?”
“Yes, on the outskirts of town, on the way to Montelusa.”
“Exactly. I was driving home alone after going to the movies with a girlfriend, since my boyfriend didn’t want to come. It was just past midnight. The last stretch of road is pretty deserted. At one point, up ahead of me I saw in my headlights a car stopped by the side of the road with its hood raised. There was a man tinkering with the motor, and he looked up and gestured for me to stop. Which I did instinctively. But the man immediately came up to the car, pointing a gun at the window, and ordered me to get out. As soon as I did, he told me to turn around and then violently pressed a pad soaked with chloroform over my face. I woke up two hours later, somewhere just outside of Montelusa. So I called up my boyfriend and told him to come and get me. He’d been searching desperately for me for the past couple of hours, after finding my car beside the road with the door open and no one inside. But I was okay. Nobody did anything to me physically, no violence, not even a bruise or a scratch. And nothing was stolen, either.”
“So, as I seem to have gathered, you got a good look at the man.”
“Yes, but I couldn’t describe him to you.”
“Because he had a cap on his head pulled all the way down over his brow and was wearing dark glasses and a scarf covering his mouth and chin.”
“Now think hard before answering. Did he seem to you like a young man or an older man?”
“But I just said . . .”
“I’m sorry, but normally a woman gets a sense of these things by instinct. Just try thinking back on those moments . . .”
The girl furrowed her brow and searched her memory.
“He was an older man,” she finally said with assurance. “The way he walked up to me, I’d say he didn’t have the gait of a young man.”“He was an older man,” she finally said with assurance. “The way he walked up to me, I’d say he didn’t have the gait of a young man.”
“Excellent. And when he pulled you towards him to chloroform you, did you smell anything in particular? Like cologne or aftershave?”
This time she answered readily.
“No, I got a whiff of sour perspiration. The guy seemed to sweat like a pig. And it was even cold outside, though it’s only September.”
“Let’s continue. You were apparently the victim of an overnight kidnapping. And you’re probably asking yourself a lot of questions about it. Have you formed any opinion of who it could have been and why he might have done it?”
“What do you think? Of course I have a lot of questions! Especially because I’ve been unable to come up with a single answer.”
“Could it have been a former lover trying to take revenge?”
“What kind of revenge is that? He didn’t do anything to me. If somebody wanted revenge they would have tried to rape me or knock me around.”
Made perfect sense.
“What kind of job do you have at the Banca di Credito?”
“I was hired just three months ago. For now I’m the manager’s secretary.”
“Where did you work before that?”
“In a notary’s office.”
“I have no further questions,” Montalbano said, standing up.
They shook hands. The young woman went out and Enzo came in.
“What do you think, Inspector?”
“I don’t think it’s anything directly personal against your niece or her father. There’s just some nutcase out there going around kidnapping young women and fortunately not harming them. Don’t worry, we’ll catch him.”
But, deep down, he wasn’t really so sure.
CrimeReads needs your help. The mystery world is vast, and we need your support to cover it the way it deserves. With your contribution, you'll gain access to exclusive newsletters, editors' recommendations, early book giveaways, and our new "Well, Here's to Crime" tote bag.