It was a sea, not an ocean. Flat and still and dormant like the cross-section of a sleepy sphere. Black pitch. As unforgivingly black as the upper half of it, whose dome, crossed now by large fast shreds of white cloud, had been raining fat drops on his windshield till a moment ago. The asphalt of the road on which sat his large black car, faking, with him in it, the lethargic inertia of a deep-sea predator, was black as well, made cobble-shiny by the shower. His cigarette’s tip brightened up into the carbonic white combustion of an old-fashioned movie projector and then faded into darkness at the pace of his suicidal lungs. He was stalling sur place, puff after small puff, as long as it’d take to make it to the most unlikely hour of departure.
There was a couple of pocket watches, of a cheapest sort no doubt, hidden under his tires. He had noticed them as he climbed into the car, back from Agnes’s beach house: a watch in front of the left front tire, a watch behind the left back tire. The moment he drove away or backed the car to do it, one of the two watches would be smashed, its hands frozen in space to reveal the exact time of his departure from the crime scene. Roll time backwards, that he couldn’t do, but stretch it forward, there was no one around to prevent him from doing that, as long as he liked. Several hours of furious patient delay, several hundreds or thousands of drags, distilled to the smallest puffs to keep the burns in his throat down to tolerable self-disgust, and he’d be proven innocent. Not that he wasn’t.
Now, yes, his car was seen in the area at the time of crime, that couldn’t be helped. But what criminal loiters for several extra hours on the incriminating spot?
The forensic science of rigor mortis is rigorous, no pun intended. Contrary to your nails and hair, the moment you die your teeth stop growing. Instantly! That’s why a skull is a skull is a skull. An ancient mummy’s skull with the teeth of a walrus would be tantamount to unintelligent design. So, all you need is the records of the victim’s last dentist appointment. You take the length of, say, an incisor as recorded on this day and hour of dental hygiene, compare it with the length of the same incisor in the victim’s mouth, and the difference gives you the time of death with microscopic accuracy.
The principle of dependable time-of-death computation is unequalled in tracing back the crime’s when-done-it, which often leads by causal necessity to the who-done-it. The who-done-it was not him, we said it already. And there was no corpse in need of a birth certificate anyway—at best, the forensic investigator will find, on the crime scene, the toothless remains of a human tongue, which deserved to die anyway an even worse death than the one someone, not him (third exculpation is a charm), had given it.
And on top of it all, the quest for the who-done-it was usually the remunerative task of private-eye him.
An inch or two above his cigarette’s white beam, the larger yet dimmer medallion of the moon broke through the running cloud and spread its long sinuous silvery beam across the black table of the sea, right toward his car. It seemed to be reaching out through the windshield: an agile, wet-shiny tongue, determined to probe right and left over his smoke-drenched body, up and down, till it found the best orifice to enter him by and rip him apart. He’d heard of tiny birds doing the same with monarch butterflies: they rip them open with the longer tongues inside their long beaks and then suck away at the poured contents of their abdomens. Except that monarch butterflies tend to be toxic. If it weren’t for this intrusive notion of toxicity and the centrifugal regret it awakened, his elaborate bird metaphor, sprouted out of too many drags on too many cigarettes, would’ve helped him dodge the memory of Agnes’s tongue. That crimson powerful muscle of hers (he missed it already), it would have given away her time of death if he’d done away with her as he felt like doing every time, two nights ago in her beach house, she… There, no sooner did Agnes come to mind than he was carried away: it’s well known that a tongue’s length is of no forensic help! Agnes’s tireless tongue leafing impersonally through his inner layers to find out—what, exactly? He hadn’t found out yet. Perhaps, he was guessing now, whether his black-and-white, smoke-drenched exteriors matched what he had made of himself inside?
At rest, Agnes’s tongue folded on itself behind a slight bulge in her hollow cheek. But when was it ever at rest? Easier to dodge a bullet than that tongue, even if the former must be, on average (depending on the pressure exercised on the trigger) three times at least as fast as the latter was.
Provided a shooter of average strength, it wouldn’t be all that hard to gauge the difference in speed, if Agnes could still lend her mouth to the experiment. Which was the point of his long wait that smoky sleepless night. That she couldn’t anymore, not for a while.
He missed sunrise by about 30 minutes. When he glimpsed the first rays of light across the smoke-flavored fog filling his car’s cockpit, he opened the driver’s window to let fresh air in, warmish already, and cigarette smog out. As the windshield cleared, the dome above it turned a gradual blue, lighter still than the lead-like blue of the still flat sea. The line of the horizon bisected his windshield with the indifferent precision of a razor, and there to his right it was, glorious as ever, two earth-bound lips pressed together to kiss, or swallow, the sun’s huge burning head: the Gulf of Siracusa, faithful friend.
It was here in Ortygia that he’d met Agnes two nights and three days ago. For all intents and purposes, Ortygia is an island, even if all it takes to reach mainland (i. e. the city of Siracusa) is a stroll through either one of its three short bridges. What he loved most of his island was the Aretusa Fountain, where sweet and salty water mingle with long stems of papyrus, where survivors from celestial raptus, lithe as reeds, come heal their violated limbs from time immemorial, and which all the unauthorized night-play was around, this epidemic summer. Under favor of the night, he was tailing the wife of an American client who (the wife), clad in moon-bathing attire, had climbed down from her husband’s yacht’s gangway and was, predictably yet surreptitiously, approaching her husband’s best friend’s yacht’s gangway. He had been through this sort of tail job dozens of times, always the same, give or take the variable scope of haunches awaiting and haunches approaching the consummation of a tryst. A couple of pictures from his hidden camera tonight and another couple tomorrow night would suffice.
He got paid on commission, not by the hour. Most cases of conjugal infidelity in Ortygia were so ineluctable that they took him no time at all to solve, and he wondered why he was even assigned them, when the injured party knew the solution beforehand. His solve rate was 99% and most of his clients, oldish American men mostly, reached out to his shoulder for a fraternal pat when he told them with a handshake, “You pay me when and if I succeed.” Never considering for a minute that true success, in their furtive whispered deal at Bar Condorelli, would be failure on his part. Or that in other private eyes’ hands, hands less mindful of the flat-footed purchase of each investigative task, the incentive to prove betrayal at all costs might earn him handsome invoices.
(So, in case you wondered whether he spent a squalid half of last night fumigating his lungs to pile up detective-work hours, well, the answer is no, he got paid at delivery, and a double no at that, as he wasn’t even on the job last night, being on that occasion the investigatee rather than the investigator: those two watches buried under his tires spoke volumes.)
Anyway, the case of conjugal cheating launched on the path of expedite commission – those postage-stamp-sized triangles of gauzy fabrics, ambulating themselves from gangway to gangway, frozen already in one more evidential photo – the remotest corner of his side vision caught a signal which drew his attention. He looked that way, toward the Japanese dance platform Ma-Kiti-Kaka, and saw a black swan framed in the spotlight slicing a clatter of snare drums. It reminded him of a woman’s portrait he had seen not long ago in a book on the Belle Époque: a full-breasted girl in the tiniest of black dresses, and protruding from it in the whitest shade of white, her slim long legs and slim long arms and slim long neck, purposefully designed, you’d’ve thought, to contrast those ample, dark-clad roundish bellows pushing gulps of salty air into her chest. Still like a statue in the middle of the platform, the girl (Agnes) seemed unaware of everybody else’s dancing frenzy around her—all of the dancers waiting for the inevitable raid of the carabinieri to disperse the un-facemasked crowd. On closer inspection, she was dancing too, swaying her hips with the unintended and hardly perceptible swoon of a belly dancer: at her fastest reactive stride, as he was to learn in time (soon). There was like an invisible halo bumping the other dancers out of her way. A halo, a bubble, a virus-like crown of droplets of contagious perspiration? She was dancing with friends, he learned in time (sooner), but you’d’ve hardly believed there was some orbital logic connecting her lethargic dance to anybody else on that platform, or some rhythmic correlation between the drums’ feverish beats and her stingy motions. He still had no idea, how could he?, of the strict correlation linking her body’s and her mind’s reaction-times. Soonish he’d learn about it too.
A melting pot of percussions, sweating butts, spotlights bouncing around like lightning caught in a pinball machine, and the DJ’s swaggery incantations filling Ma-Kiti-Kaka’s diminutive bubble of heat to the rim. His private-eye self mingled with the surrounding, larger and cooler bubble of shadows (behind whose discreet curtain, huge yachts culled unmentionable misdemeanors), he even got a transient premonitory sight of Agnes’s tongue’s blood-red tip. You’d have thought of a lump of satin-finished pigment squeezed straight out of a tube of color: it insinuated itself for a needle-jab instant between her pressed-together lips, as if determined to occlude, at once and permanently, the excoriating lament which her lips were blowing out already, all too soon, out of the docile mouthpiece of his brain’s trumpet.
The girl stepped down and out of the dancing platform and came toward him. She walked warily forward, like a quadruped, slender yet protuberant, standing on her hind legs. He was sitting on a mushroom-shaped bollard. Coming toward him, it felt more like he was going toward her, and the effect was exhilarating. She stopped six social-distancing feet in front of him, squinting like she was nearsighted.
“All you need to make yourself invisible in this dark is a black shirt,” she said in a foreign accent.
“In my line of work you wear a black suit on a white shirt, period.” There was something frecklier than pretty to her face, but she was less deep into her twenties than he into his thirties.
“Your line of work.”
“I majored in Detective Studies magna cum laude.”
“Look, it’s all the same to me,” she said after a pause. “We can just have an ice cream and take a stroll to start with.”
“You know it’s forbidden to socialize with un-facemasked strangers?”
“You do, though,” she replied. There was no irony in her voice, which made it a tough question to answer. It wasn’t even a question, on second thought.
“Ice cream can be contagious,” he said.
“So can you,” she replied, unrebuttably again.
“How about we rent a couple chaises longues here around the corner,” he said, pointing a finger, “and watch the sky and listen to the sea lap at the sand?”
“You plan to hear the waves over this music.”
All her question marks were lost in translation.
“Between songs,” he said. “There are wavelets in your hair anyway. I may listen to those just as well.”
“You silly! You can’t hear hair lap at a skull. I’ll have an ice cream to lap at anyway, while you listen to whatever.” She clapped her hands delightedly. “Strawberry flavor, please,” she told an invisible waitress. The red pigment of her tongue lapped demonstratively at her large incisors and then folded upon itself to rest behind the bulge in her hollow cheek.
“Black pants, black coat, black tie, black hat, black shoes, and white shirt. The How-to-Dress-for-Work course was an elective at Detective School, but it served me well.”
“Electives were my favorites at finishing school in Zurich,” Agnes said.
“Midmorning I go sit at a table of Bar Condorelli in Piazza Duomo, and the cylinder of shadow under that broad parasol is my best advertisement. All those white-bright colors around me, shiny Mediterranean skins, oily scalps, gipsy kids playing their accordion, the pagan temple disguised as a Christian church: no one can miss that shadowy cylinder with black-clothed me inside it. Husbands especially, foreign husbands consumed by jealousy, come sit at a nearby table sooner or later. If it’s not today because they are escorted by the wife, it’s the next day when they come back on their own. And then one thing leads to another.”
“Detective School in Palermo sounds more glamorous than my finishing school in Zurich, even,” she said.
“Glamorous is pushing it but I liked it. The first course I ever took was time-of-death computation. I got a straight A. I love forensic work.”
“Forum fori, gender neutral, plural fora. It’s Latin, means hole.”
“You did Latin at finishing school?”
“You kidding me. My first fiancé taught me Latin anatomy.”
They were smoking in bed, her bed. As he spoke, wrist resting on pubis, cigarette held between index and middle finger, he tried to reverse engineer the optical fallacy that made mismatched twin towers, from his and her horizontal vantage point, of his cigarette and his unassuaged arousal.
“Near the day of my high school graduation, a bunch of local luminaries visited the school to instruct me and my fellow students, all boys, about our future college options. There was a priest, chief of the local diocese; a bridge engineer, chief of his own firm; the chief firefighter; the chief carabiniere; the chief of the Ortygia tribunal; and the chief of the Siracusa hospital. After each presentation, the speaker asked us to raise our hand if we were interested in pursuing his same career path, and he wrote down our names for special recommendations. Two of my peers raised their hand for priesthood before I did.”
“You wanted to be a Catholic priest,” Agnes said. “What about me then, with the rule of celibacy and all. Now you’d have to leave the order with a dishonorable discharge or something.”
“I didn’t really want to be a priest. Mostly, I was attracted to the soutane. I guess I already saw myself as a man in black.”
“You didn’t go for it. In Zurich I dressed only in black, like Audrey Hepburn.”
They had made a night of these frequent cigarette breaks. They lighted one more. He had just come to the conclusion that, regardless of the thrust of conversation, there was something matter-of-factly unrebuttable or unobjectionable to all of Agnes’s statements. Two speech registers, that was her range: she kept the prohibitory register for the bedroom, the affirmative register was for everywhere else.
“It was bound to be a foolish ordeal for one of those two would-be-priest kids, I realized right away. After all, there is only room for one chief of diocese in Ortygia, it’s a small island. I was also interested in the bridge engineer profession, but when Mauro, Tony, and Franco, three remarkably stupid boys, raised their hands in unison, I didn’t give that bridge engineer the time of day. With a max of three bridges linking the island to mainland, tell me, how many bridge engineers could ever hope of being fully employed locally?”
She frowned in concentration. “For a second I had it here on the tip of my tongue.” She rolled out her tongue to prove it.
“Well, three, don’t you see? Anyway, the post of chief firefighter appealed to me for its daredevil side, the post of chief carabiniere for its presidential mandate, and the post of tribunal chief for its contribution to law and order, but my three best friends, Antonio, Pietro, and Rocco, beat me to the punch each time.”
“That left you the medical profession.”
“None of us went for it! We weren’t a total bunch of nitwits, you know. The only local hospital is in Siracusa, there’s none here on the island. So, no hospital? No hospital chief job either.”
“You picked Detective School.”
“After class, I was walking home in a dejected state of mind when I was struck with inspiration. What the heck, I told myself, I’ll just have to investigate till I find the right career path for myself! There must be something as good as priest, bridge engineer, fireman, carabiniere, judge, or medical doctor for a kid like me in Ortygia! And a minute later that very word, in-ve-sti-ga-te, was blinking in kaleidoscopic colors in front of my mind’s eye. At home, I searched the phone directory and found out that there was a Detective School at Palermo U. The rest is history.”
The smoke of her gold-tipped cigarettes was nauseating, but kept him from dozing off while she took one of her naps. No sooner did he shut his eyes than he envisaged a battering ram hitting a fortified gate over and over without ever breaking through—the punctual oneiric version of her prohibitory speech register in bed. Agnes had made it clear from the get-go that she had her own perspectival viewpoint, orthogonal to his, as it soon turned out from her grammar of groin contractions and negative instructions. A just reconstructed hymen (expensively reconstructed, it sounded like, even if she didn’t put it that way) is not a thing you want to throw away without giving it a second thought. After so many hours of mutual pertinacious activity, he reminded himself of what Confucius once said about such matters. You lean on the city’s gate and push forward ever so gently, till at dawn it opens up as if of its own will. So then, and only then, you go for the homestretch run—now: fast! On what side of the gate (or was it a dam?) would Confucius lean on, though?, he wondered, the alarm of Agnes’s elongated tongue blowing out of him the same unrelieving lament, still fresher than a fresh gun wound.
Enough! If destiny had kept this born-again virgin in store for him, he was far from a fatalist.
Blades of light were slicing the carpet at the foot of the bed, dawn was long past and with it Confucius’s finest hour, when Agnes’s entire room reverberated in response to a deep gong-like sound.
“Breakfast time,” she said.
“You mean the butler serves you breakfast at a prescribed time every morning?”
“What butler,” she said, but it was meant as a question.
“The one who opened us the door last night, wearing a facemask and a tuxedo.”
“Our butler never wears a tux. And we don’t have a butler anyway. That was my Dad.”
“He wears the tuxedo at home, your Dad?”
“Self-made man,” she explained. “To remind himself of his wealth. And remind the same to everybody else when he goes out. He never does these days, though. Go out, I mean.”
In the shower, Agnes whipped a lather frieze, as belabored as pointless, on the mollified shaft of his optical fallacy.
The telltale bulge of the gun in his pants’ pocket made him clumsy as he walked fully dressed toward the breakfast table, took off his hat, and shook Agnes’s father’s hand.
Agnes’s father took off the facemask before sitting at the head of the table. He recited a brief Lutheran prayer, then they ate silently to their hearts’ content. After a collective smoke of gold-tipped cigarettes, the father took him out to the terrace with a view of the bay. The sun’s incandescent eye stared insolently at them, like it dared them to stare back. Agnes was listening to Andrea Bocelli from the couch.
“Yesterday, my girl was a virgin,” the man said.
“She still is, Sir.”
They looked at length into each other’s eyes. The father came to a conclusion and nodded to himself. Then he put a hand on his shoulder. “You look like you are holding something back within yourself,” he told him. And then, “Why don’t you put your hat back on?” he gave him permission. Which he did after recovering his black Fedora from inside. Agnes was still listening to Bocelli.
“See those four cruising ships anchored offshore?”
“I do. Huge.”
“Too big to be allowed any nearer. No one is going on my cruises anymore because of the pandemic, and I’ll soon be drowned in a liquidity problem.”
“No way out?”
“I’m working on one. The day Agnes and you’ll give me a grandchild, my fleet will be yours to manage, Son.”
“I’ll do my best, Sir.”
“I know you will, I know you will.”
“You know how your Dad means to fix his liquidity problem?” he asked Agnes when they were back in bed.
“I’ll tell you, I promise,” she uttered with an upward glance in between clammy slurps of air. “Later.”
The two dimples framing her upturned lower back gave her the looks of a musical instrument.
The trouble with time is not so much that it’s always there in front of you, as the now that you tell, after watching the watch, when asked what is it?, as that it’s hard to keep track of the two sides of what it separates you from, i. e., that which has gone on before and that which hasn’t gone on yet. He opened the car’s door and stepped out to take a look at the pocket watches under his tires. They were gold watches, 20-karat gold, which made it an unlikely asset for some generic private eye from out of town. They hadn’t been wound, and the hands pointed at 7:30 AM sharp, on both faces. Whoever had put them there, they wanted for him to appear to have left Agnes’s beach house an hour from now.
He could’ve driven away right after he left the house, smashing the face of one or other of the two watches underneath his front and back tire, gone home for an invigorating sleep, and still his alibi would hold to a t. He couldn’t be accused of having cut Agnes’s tongue because, according to the watch’s crushed face, he hadn’t run away from the crime scene, like any self-respecting abuser would’ve done. Were the gold watches meant to protect him from a rushed flight? Spare him the enervating production he had put on in his car all night long? But who could’ve foreseen the unfolding of this chain of events, if not Agnes’s assailant himself? And why cut her tongue shortly before her rendezvous with the local private eye? To keep the girl from telling him—what? Too many unanswerable questions.
He pulled the band aid off his neck. Last night’s wound across his carotid artery had almost healed. Even Agnes’s tongue will grow back in a couple weeks, and she’ll be able to tell him the truth about last night, then. But for now, he was bound to stay in the dark. He told himself that he had to choke his feelings of tenderness, even those for the least freckly detour of Agnes’s freckled body. If there was anything he couldn’t afford in this predicament, it was softness. Everything in him had to be ice, just as hard as ice: a frozen prism, ready to split all that darkness into the rainbow of truth!
Last night, on his way to Agnes’s beach house, he had stopped by the Aretusa Fountain to glance at the long-stemmed papyri. The vision of ancient rape victims bathing their limbs in those sweet-and-salty waters filled him with a sororal sort of regret. Inadmissible to himself, he sensed that it was that very regret, throbbing deep inside, centrifugal yet submissive, that he was after renewing on the night ahead of him. Little did he know that fate had an even deeper regret in store for him.
The door to Agnes’s beach house was wide open, all rooms in the dark as he made his way into it. He recognized the living room as it was adjacent to the breakfast room, where he had spent a comfortable hour yesterday morning in the company of Agnes’s tuxedoed Dad. There was a shadowy intruder in there, a two-legged triangle folded upon its vertex and fumbling over a larger indistinct shadow beneath and behind it. All the detective bones inside his body told him something was amiss. He pulled the gun from his pants’ pocket to make the arrest, but before he could announce his presence with a cough or something, the intruder rotated dervish-smooth on the hip bone, threw at him the pair of scissors he held in his hands, and made for the door. One blade sliced his carotid artery and a jet of blood spurted out diagonally through the room. He pressed a finger on the wound to occlude it. But when he pulled the gun’s trigger, much of his index finger’s might had already poured out of his artery, so the handicapped bullet traveled in a tired parable, falling on the floor facing the door with a pebble-like noise.
He was now facing Agnes wearing a rosy iridescent silk slip and tightly tied to a chair. At the foot of the chair were a roll of bandages and a roll of tape. The middle finger pressed tightly on his artery, he picked up the scissors that had been thrown at him, cut a small square of bandage from the roll and taped it over his wound. Then he set about to untie Agnes. Only at this moment did he notice that both her cheeks were hollow. Where had her tongue’s bulge gone? His frantic fingers ran to her lips and opened them wide, only to realize the meaning of those scissors, bandages, and tape. He had caught the intruder as he was bandaging the remnants of Agnes’s tongue after cutting it off. The intruder had done a good bandaging job, he couldn’t help noticing, considering the difficulty of the task at hand.
And there it was, the truncated tongue, resting on Agnes’s lap like a rosy sex toy! He grabbed it in a fisthold, the tip protruding between his thumb and index finger, the larger base protruding from the other side, and shook it in front of her face. “Who did this to you?” he shouted. But she only jumped and wriggled on her chair, eyes wide open. He threw the tongue against the opposite wall in utter exasperation. “WHO DID THIS TO YOU?” he screamed. But she kept jumping and wriggling, jumping and wriggling.
When he was done untying her, he said, recomposed, “Clearly, you’ll have to keep the secret to yourself till your tongue grows back.” There was, he noticed, a gold rotary dial with a heavyset handset on a table at the opposite side of the room. “Should I call the carabinieri? I can call Pietro, the local chief, my friend from high school.”
Still seated on the same chair, she shook her head no twice, firmly.
“You are right,” he said. “Pietro couldn’t learn from you anything that I couldn’t.”
She made a pair of scissors of her index and middle finger and shook them back and forth. He lighted a cigarette for her, one of his, and put it between her fingers. After a couple drags—deep drags, she sucked like she was still shocked from her misadventure—she gestured at him to leave the house.
“You don’t want me to be caught here with you when the police show up?”
She nodded yes. He walked in a small circle without meaning it and then went back in front of her.
“You don’t want them to think it’s me who did this to you?”
She nodded yes again.
On his way out of the living room, he switched the chandelier on. And the whole scene appeared in a different light! His gun’s bullet rested on the floor, three yards away from its shell casing and, surprisingly, three yards to the left of the door exited through by the intruder. He picked up and slipped both bullet and casing into a pocket before doing his exit.
That’s when he left Agnes’s beach house for good, reached his car parked in the vicinity, noticed the two watches hidden under his tire, lighted a cigarette, and started his long wait through what was left of the night.
7:14 AM. Three loud explosions in close sequence from the Siracusa side of the island. It dawns on him that the alibi someone tried to palm upon him was not meant as a free pass to a night of peaceful rest, but as shelter from a more serious accusation than domestic violence. Whatever the intentions of this secret someone, he could just as well take advantage of it now. He puts the two pocket watches back under the tires, the posterior one in front and not behind the back tire though, and takes off at high speed, crashing both. If the smashed watch in front is to prove that he left this parking spot no earlier than ten minutes from now, the one smashed in back will provide further confirmation to the alibi.
At the apex of the channel separating Ortygia from Siracusa, he finds Pietro the chief carabiniere, Antonio the chief firefighter, and Rocco the tribunal chief. Three baby-blue Lamborghinis with the Italian State insignia on the driver’s door are waiting for them with three uniformed, facemasked chauffeurs aboard. He joins his friends in contemplation of the three collapsed bridges. The first terrorist attack in Ortygia ever!
“It’ll take a load of engineering work to rebuild,” Antonio the fireman says.
“I’m half of a mind to incriminate Mauro, Tony, and Franco of this crime,” Pietro the carabiniere says.
“With no bridge left, we have no hospital rooms to house future pandemic victims on the island,” Antonio the fireman said.
“Not to worry,” Rocco the judge says. “I was just on the phone with the Mayor. As we speak, he’s signing a deal to use those four cruise ships offshore as emergency hospitals.”
“Hmm,” our man-in-black says. “It’ll cost us, I bet.”
“A bunch and some,” Rocco the judge says.
Which pushes his solve rate up to 100%, and he isn’t even on the case. The three bridges had to go to fix Agnes’s Dad’s liquidity problem. Agnes’s wayward tongue had to go to keep the local private-eye from foiling the plan. The two gold watches had to go to keep Agnes’s Dad’s anointed son-in-law, a.k.a. the local private-eye, out of all sorts of trouble. All of it a one-man’s job, he told himself. Hats off!
“Mauro, Tony, and Franco, I’m going to indict the all of them,” Pietro the carabiniere says again.
“I wouldn’t bet your next salary raise on it,” our man-in-black says.
“Think of it. Mauro, Tony, and Franco graduated in bridge engineering, what?, twelve-fourteen years ago? Since then the populace keeps whispering that one day for sure they’ll sabotage our three bridges to get a fat rebuilding commission from the Mayor,” our man-in-black says.
“So?” asks Pietro the carabiniere.
“So they’d have to be stupider than greedier to fall for that.”
“Stupider than greedier,” Pietro echoes his words. Then he stares at our man-in-black for a long moment. “You know what?” he says. “I’m beginning to think that Detective School was better than Police School.”
Our man doesn’t find anything to reply to that.
“By the way,” Pietro again, “do you have an alibi for last night, Annibale?”
How long since somebody called him by his given name! “I do,” he says.
“I need proof.” Pietro again. “Don’t take it personally, Annibale. I can’t leave no stone unturned, what with my next salary raise at stake.”
“I show you tomorrow.”
With two comradely fingers at the brim of his hat, he leaves his friends and their Lamborghinis behind, climbs into his car and drives back toward the beach house. The two gold pocket watches are still there on the asphalt where he smashed them less than an hour ago. He throws both of them into the glove compartment as exculpatory evidence. Then, with a sigh, and with a 100% solve rate under his belt, he drives home: the end of his long day’s journey through the night. No need any more to wait for Agnes’s tongue to grow back either: she could tell him nothing he doesn’t know already.
A couple hours after sunset he goes back to the second and final installment of his tail job. His target walks down the yacht’s gangway wearing a facemask and little else. It doesn’t take an Einstein to tell her adulterous intentions. Another couple shots from his hidden camera and he is ready to deliver on the job. He walks up the same gangway in her opposite direction.
Only after the transaction is completed does he realize that his client is not the woman’s husband but her lover, and the yacht she just got back on board of is her husband’s. “As long as the check doesn’t bounce, I don’t care,” he tells himself as he walks back down the gangway. But he isn’t too pleased with himself for having been less than vigilant in his processing of accessible information. Has he lost his acumen in Agnes’s bed, his skull emptied of gray matter by the unrelenting song she blew out of his brain’s trumpet?
They are dancing again on the Ma-Kiti-Kaka platform to his right. In no time he sees Agnes surrounded by the palimpsest of the frantic crowd, statuesque in her swan-like bubble of black splendor. He turns the other way, not without that familiar sort of regret pirouetting once more, submissive and centrifugal, down his spine. Hot girl, that Agnes, but what with her even hotter family! “Who needs that shitload of luggage?” he whispers under his breath.
He fishes his smart phone out of the coat’s pocket and presses Pietro’s contact after pushing a handkerchief against his mouth.
“Hello,” he hears from the other side.
“The chief carabiniere?” he enquires in his counterfeited voice.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Look,” he whispers, “you should know that they are dancing again at the Ma-Kiti-Kaka tonight, all of them un-facemasked.”
“We know, Annibale, we know.”
He cuts the anonymous call in a rush. How the heck did Pietro recognize his voice right away, that devil?
Better call it a night and go home before he lowers his guard any further, he tells himself. Walking homeward, he lights one last cigarette and puffs thoughtfully at it, waiting for the sour taste of the regret in his groin to work its way up toward his mouth. Tomorrow, tomorrow he’ll tackle whatever tail job the new day brings with a better disposition.
Gian Balsamo is a cryptologist from Palo Alto, CA. He is a fan of the Italian writer Alberto Moravia and the Italian comic strip hero Diabolìk. Day in and day out, he works at speeding up prime factorization.