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Authors: Michele Giuttari

death in tuscany

Death in Tuscany

MICHELE GIUTTARI

Translated by Howard Curtis

ABACUS

First published in Italy in 2005 by Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Abacus This edition published in 2009 by Abacus Reprinted 2009 (three times)

Copyright © Michele Giuttari 2005 Translation copyright © Howard Curtis 2008

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-0-349-12008-9

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc

Abacus An imprint of Little, Brown Book Group 100 Victoria Embankment London EC4Y 0DY

An Hachette UK Company
www.hachette.co.uk

www. littlebrown .
co.uk

To Christa

Friendship is preferable to honours. It is better to be loved than honoured.

Aristotle

Florence, 2001

The girl, little more than a child, was found on the edge of a wood on the road above Scandicci, scantily dressed, without papers, and dying of an overdose, at dawn on Sunday 29 July, and was taken to the Ospedale Nuovo. But it wasn't until almost a week later that Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, head of the Florence
Squadra Mobile,
really became involved with the case. Friday 3 August.

He was already in a bad mood when he set foot in the office. The weather was hot and muggy, even though it was only eight in the morning. Chief Inspector Violante's report on the girl's death was in his in-tray: one of the many documents that awaited his routine examination at the beginning of every day, arranged with almost maniacal care by his secretary, Sergeant Fanti, who always got in at least half an hour before he did.

It wasn't somewhere in the middle of the pile, though. It had been placed right on the top.

And Fanti wasn't the kind of person to be impressed by the death of yet another junkie.

Ferrara had picked up his pen as soon as he sat down: an automatic gesture after so many years of deskwork. Now he replaced it and took out a cigar. His morning cigar and coffee both helped to revive brain cells undermined by time and stress.

He lit his cigar without even looking at it as he read Violante's report.

He didn't like what he read.

When, the previous Sunday, he had seen the first report from the officer on duty at the hospital, he had automatically pigeonholed the case as yet another tragedy after a night at the disco, almost a commonplace event on Saturdays in the global village. The city and the surrounding hills were awash with drugs and alcohol, like the River Arno in full spate, and like the River Arno they threatened to overflow, but with even more tragic consequences than those of the flood of 1966.

Ferrara had been feeling his age for some time. The world, it seemed to him, was getting worse rather than better, and he often found himself thinking that 'things weren't the way they used to be', just like his father and presumably his grandfather before him. He had delegated the investigation — a perfectly routine one - to Chief Inspector Violante and dismissed the case from his mind. Now it came back to hit him like a slap in the face, and he didn't really know why.

Because she was dead?

That happens to junkies.

Because her age was estimated as being between thirteen and sixteen and yet, despite being so young, she had managed to shoot a lethal dose of heroin into her body?

Perhaps.

Or because, after nearly a week, they still didn't know who she was? A small detail, a mere speck, which might turn out troublesome, like a mote in the eye of justice.

But when it came down to it, if there was anything wrong with the investigation, the fault was his.

'Fanti!' he called.

Between his office and his secretary's, the door was always open.

Sergeant Fanti had just turned forty. He was more than six feet tall and terrifyingly thin, with hollow cheeks, blue eyes and short, wiry blond hair. He had lived in his home town of Trento until the day - almost twenty years ago - when he had joined the police. Florence had been his very first posting, and here he had stayed. He had immediately become noted for his meticulousness, his discretion, and his skill at research, whether in the records or on the internet.

Such was his passion for computers, he had even updated the office's facilities at his own expense. When Ferrara had taken up his post, he had found the new equipment already assigned by his predecessors to the secretary's office and he had okayed that, although he himself occasionally made use of it when he had some particularly sensitive information to track down.

'Yes, chief?' Fanti replied, materialising in front of Ferrara's desk almost instantaneously, as usual.

Ferrara often wondered if the man spent his time with his ear against the wall, ready to burst in as soon as he had any inkling that his chief was about to summon him. Of course if he'd been doing that, he wouldn't have had time to perform the thousand tasks around the office with the efficiency, the meticulous precision, of which he was so proud. It was by far the tidiest, best functioning office in the whole of Florence Police Headquarters. In the end, Ferrara had come to the conclusion that Fanti had a sixth sense.

'Well?' he asked without preamble.

The sergeant shrugged. It wasn't his job to draw conclusions or make judgements. But it was clear from the look on his face that he'd been expecting exactly this reaction from his boss, and that it didn't surprise him that Ferrara hadn't even opened the other files. Or that the cigar had been left in the ashtray to go out by itself.

'A young girl, maybe no more than a child,' Ferrara said, lowering his voice as if he were thinking aloud rather than addressing his subordinate - although it was also useful to have him to think aloud to - 'maybe no more than a child, right? It's hard to say these days, they grow up so quickly . . . They already have breasts when they're eleven or twelve, and go around with their navels showing. Are they trying to look like whores, or are the whores trying to look like schoolgirls? A paedophile culture, that's what we're living in, Fanti. And then everyone complains when . . . But what can you do? Children today want to look like adults, and adults want to stay children forever, no one wants to grow up, no one wants to grow old, they all think they can stay in an eternal kindergarten without rules or restrictions, and not worry about time passing. Maybe I'm angry because I feel the weight of my years, every single one of them and maybe a few more. But in my day, damn it, this girl would have been a child! She would have been playing with her dolls, not with syringes! What kind of world is this? What kind of shitty world? And isn't there anyone looking for her? In the whole of Florence, isn't there a mother with a missing daughter, an uncle who's lost his niece, a tourist desperate to find his child?'

'Right, chief,' Fanti said, not knowing how to respond to this outburst.

And what about us? What have we done to identify her? What has Violante done? Has he been twiddling his thumbs? Taking his children to Rimini?'

'Chief Inspector Violante's children are grown up and can look after themselves. With all due respect, I don't think they need their father to take them to the seaside any more. And I'm sure the chief inspector hasn't been deliberately wasting time. We used to think he was a shirker, but he isn't. I think you yourself discovered that during the Ricciardi case, didn't you?'

Good old Sergeant Fanti - the voice of conscience.

Ferrara took a deep breath, then lowered his head and stared down at his desk. 'Send for him. But first bring me the complete file. Then, after Violante, I want Rizzo in here. I don't like this case at all. What are we supposed to do? Bury this girl without even finding out her name?'

'Superintendent Rizzo is on holiday, chief.'

Of course. He remembered now that at the beginning of the week Superintendent Rizzo, to all intents and purposes his deputy, had come to say goodbye before leaving for two weeks to visit his relatives in Sicily. Lucky him.

'Who's on duty?'

'Superintendent Ascalchi.'

A Roman, who knew Florence as well as Ferrara knew Asia Minor!

'Oh, great! Well, what can we do? Send for him. Then find out from the Prosecutor's Department what time the autopsy is scheduled for and who it's been assigned to. Whoever that person is, I want to speak to him as soon as possible.'

'Of course, chief,' Fanti replied, and went back to his office.

Like Rizzo, Ferrara was a Sicilian. He had been planning a journey to Sicily for months, but each time he'd had to postpone it.

While he was waiting, he phoned his wife Petra, to tell her he wouldn't be home for lunch. He didn't tell her why, there was no need. It was always like this. Even in summer. Or rather, especially in summer, when Ferrara, short-staffed because of his men's holidays, was invariably forced to give up his own.

Not that he minded: he was used to it. But he felt sorry for his wife, who insisted on staying with him all through these stifling months when the sun beat down mercilessly on Florence, the city of excess. But whenever he told her they wouldn't be going away, she would greet the announcement with a smile as predictable as the infernal heat and say that she wouldn't have been able to leave home for long anyway, because there'd be no one to water her beloved plants. He would always agree with her. They both knew this was a convenient fiction, because the terrace was equipped with a state-of-the-art irrigation system to ensure that their beautiful roof garden was always properly tended. But that was all right. It made them equal.

'All right, Michele, but whatever you do, don't go into the office tomorrow and make us miss our weekend at Massimo's, as usual. You promised him this time!'

'Don't worry, even if the sky falls, we'll be on that autostrada tomorrow morning before the tailbacks start.'

'I'll take your word for it, and I won't forgive you if—'

'So your dear Massimo takes precedence over everything, does he?'

'Dein lieber
Massimo, you mean,' Petra replied. In spite of the many years she'd lived in Italy, she sometimes broke into a few words of her native language. It happened when she was tired, emotional or excited, but also when she wanted, however unconsciously, to underline the superiority of German precision over Italian vagueness.

'Our
Massimo, shall we agree on that?' Ferrara said. 'See you later!' He had just seen Fanti coming in with the file on the girl.

Everything was in the file, starting with the record of the girl's admission to hospital, and the report by the paramedics who, alerted by an anonymous caller, had driven up the hill road leading from Scandicci to Montespertoli until they had found the girl, unconscious and barely able to breathe. They had tried to revive her, without success, and had then taken her to the nearest hospital.

The subsequent reports by Inspector Violante were detailed and irreproachable. He had examined all the missing persons reports from that period, but none of the descriptions matched. He had also checked the latest bulletin from the Ministry, but again without success. He had even gone on the internet and checked the website of a well-researched TV programme called
Has Anyone Seen Them?
which was often consulted by the police in relation to missing persons cases.

There followed copies of the telegrams, marked
Priority,
which Violante had sent to other police forces, with a summary of the case and a description of the girl, appealing for help in identifying her.

Attached to the report was a photo he had sent other forces by email. It had been taken in hospital using a digital camera, with the permission of the doctors. Given the conditions in which it was taken, the quality left something to be desired, but behind that pale, pained expression, it wasn't difficult to imagine the girl in all her radiant beauty. The features were regular, framed by soft ash-blonde hair, and the lips, even though bloodless in the photo, were full. The eyes were closed, but Ferrara - who for some reason thought they must be green - could imagine them full of life.

As was to be expected, Violante had followed the correct

procedure to the letter. But the girl, who had clung on to life while they followed up various inconclusive leads, had died without either the comfort of relatives at her sickbed or the dignity of a record that at least restored her name to her.

Cardiac and circulatory failure following acute heroin poisoning
was how the consultant in charge of the intensive care unit, Professor Ludovico d'Incisa, concluded his report.

RIP and amen.

'Come in!'

Nothing happened.

'COME IN!' Ferrara screamed a second time in response to the discreet knocks on his door. In the meantime, Fanti had run to open it, and Chief Inspector Violante, a grey man - grey hair, grey clothes, grey demeanour - who was deaf in one ear, came in and took up his position in front of Ferrara's desk.

Ferrara waved away the cloud of pale blue smoke from his second cigar, which he had just lit, and indicated the two armchairs for visitors.

'Choose whichever you want, but for God's sake sit down.'

Violante did as he was told, but perched on the edge of the seat, in an uncomfortable position. He was visibly nervous, as if expecting to be reprimanded.

'About this child . . . The one who died of a drug overdose . . . Where are we with that?'

'Nowhere really. Apart from the victim - did you say child, chief?'

'Why? Would you call her a woman?'

Violante's only response was to shrug his shoulders.

‘I’m talking about the victim in the report I found on my desk. What has your investigation come up with?'

'Nothing in particular, chief. Time to close the file, I think . . .'

'I'll decide that, if you don't mind,' Ferrara replied. He didn't like to hear that tone of fatalistic resignation from one of his men.

Violante seemed not to understand. 'Of course, chief. But did you read the whole file?' He could see that Ferrara had it in front of him.

'Obviously. I didn't send for it just to give it an airing.'

Why was Ferrara so irritable? Violante wondered. Why was he treating him like this? He'd done his job, and he'd done it well.

'You'll have seen that we did everything we possibly could. I dealt with it personally and didn't neglect anything. But in the meantime, the girl died . . .' He shrugged his shoulders by way of conclusion.

'And yet we don't even know who she is! After nearly a week!'

Violante still did not understand.

Considering everything they had on their plates at the moment, especially with a reduced workforce, the death of a junkie wasn't exactly a priority. His many years' experience had made him cynical, and he was convinced that a girl who wasn't even missed by her family didn't really matter that much to anyone, so he was surprised by Ferrara's sudden insistence. But he also had to admit that he respected it. It was as if there was still room for a glimmer of humanity in their work: something he'd stopped believing in since he'd started counting the days until his retirement.

'A week isn't so long, chief. In fact, it's quite normal. If no one comes forward and the subject has no papers or anything else that makes identification possible, you know as well as I do that it can take months, and sometimes we get nowhere.'

It was true, and Ferrara wondered again why it was that he had reacted so impulsively. He was usually cautious, usually thought long and hard before blowing up. This death might have its curious aspects, but it was hardly unusual in a modern city. And Florence was no different from any other modern city in this respect.

Something about the case, though, didn't feel right. What was it? Everything, he thought, fishing out the victim's photo and taking another look at it: the pale face, the closed eyes, the tense, tormented features, heartbreaking in their still-childlike beauty.

Everything and nothing, as often happens. But he was pigheaded. If his instinct told him something was wrong, then he had to see it through to the end. Without thinking too much, at least for the moment.

'You saw her,' he said. 'How old do you think she was?'

'I'm hoping the autopsy will tell us for certain. Not very old, I'd say.'

'Old enough to be a junkie?'

Are you asking me, chief? What do I know about kids today? I didn't understand my own children twenty years ago . . . All I know is that she died from acute heroin poisoning. That's what's written on the medical certificate. A classic overdose - all too common, unfortunately'

'Yes,' Ferrara admitted. 'You may be right. Maybe that's the way it was. Just one more statistic for the new millennium. But I don't like it. Do you remember how we used to feel when we went to school and we hadn't done our homework? That's how I feel now. I'm not criticising your work in any way. But you've been following the case from the start. What are your impressions?'

'For what it's worth, I think the girl was almost certainly an illegal immigrant, that's why no one has come forward.'

Ferrara nodded. Although it had taken Violante to say it openly, the thought had been lurking at the back of his mind.

An illegal immigrant without a family: he refused to believe that her parents hadn't come forward simply because they were afraid of being deported. Besides, a young immigrant doesn't have the time or the inclination or the money to buy drugs. It was much more likely that she was a victim of the international traffic in human beings, which was reaching staggering proportions: the number of children who disappeared each year throughout the world and ended up in the clutches of unscrupulous traffickers was horrifying.

'From Eastern Europe
..."
he said, looking at the photo again.

'That's what I thought.' 'Anything else?' Violante hesitated. 'Well?'

'Nothing I can put my finger on. Just an impression . . . But, all things considered, it doesn't matter, believe me.'

'What do you mean, "all things considered"?'

'You know what I mean. An illegal immigrant. . .' Violante replied with the air of resigned indifference people use to talk about subjects they'd prefer to sweep under the carpet.

Yes, he knew what Violante meant.

An unidentified illegal immigrant who'd died of a drug overdose was like a rubbish bag ready to be collected and placed in the appropriate pile: on one side those who matter and are talked about in the press and on TV, and on the other all the rest, whose records no one will ever consult. In other words, this was a case to be concluded without any fuss and without causing the Commissioner any needless worry — because, as everyone knew, he had plenty of other things on his plate.

That was the explanation for Violante's resigned attitude.

'No,' Ferrara replied, calmly, without jumping down his throat again. 'This time I don't know. Tell me your impressions and let me draw my own conclusions, okay?'

'Okay, chief, but the thing is . . . well
...
I don't really know. It's the hospital. There's something strange going on there.'

'What do you mean?'

'It's as if . . . as if once they found out no one was coming forward, they just dropped her. I mean, as if they didn't really take care of her. And now that she's dead, she's become a nuisance, and they're in a hurry to have done with her . . . like they wanted to get rid of her as quickly as possible, you know what I mean?'

'Yes, I think I'm starting to . . .'

'Since she died, they've hurried everything up. Yesterday my colleague on duty at the hospital even phoned to ask me if I could finish my report as soon as possible. As if we had nothing else to do, as if I'm bone idle.'

'Did he tell you why?'

'He says the consultant asked him. But it seems as if even the Prosecutor's Department wants to close the case as soon as possible.'

Why, for God's sake? And why was the consultant in such a hurry?

'Do you think maybe they could have saved her but made a mistake?'

'Who knows? I'm not a medical expert. But I think something strange is going on. Maybe it's just because it's August, everyone wants to get off on holiday, they're overworked, they need the beds, the case was hopeless

'Especially if she was an illegal immigrant,' Ferrara said, and realised he was getting angry again. 'If there's the slightest suspicion of malpractice we're not going to let them get away with it, okay? Do you have the medical records?'

'No - I didn't think . . .'

'What?'

'I didn't think there was any point . . . and besides, we'd need a special warrant from the deputy prosecutor who's dealing with the investigation.'

'Which deputy prosecutor is that?'

'Anna Giulietti.'

Excellent, Ferrara thought. He'd developed a good professional relationship with her during the recent Ricciardi case, and they had come out of it firm friends. He'd have to have a chat with her as soon as he could.

'Put in a request for the warrant immediately, Violante.'

All right, chief.'

'We haven't finished with this case yet. I want you to carry on. How many men do you have on it?' 'What?'

Ferrara repeated the question, more loudly.

'Not many, chief. We're short-staffed.' Violante's tone was one of complaint, but there was a gleam of life in his eyes.

'Fanti!' Ferrara called. Before the sergeant had even come in, he asked, 'Is Sergi on holiday, too?'

'No, chief,' Fanti replied from the other room.

'I want him to work with Violante, as of now. And put as many men at their disposal as you can, okay?'

'Of course, chief,' Fanti replied as soon as he appeared, before vanishing again.

'Here,' Ferrara said, handing Violante the report. 'It needs changing.'

'How?'

'For cause of death, cross out "overdose". For the moment, assume it's homicide caused by persons unknown through the administration of narcotic substances, either of bad quality or in an excessive dose.'

'Okay, chief, I'll get on it straightaway'

Violante left the room with a new spring in his step.

2

And what about you? When are you going on holiday?'

Already been,' Superintendent Ascalchi replied. He had come in immediately after Violante had gone out.

And indeed he had a handsome tan. Well, a tan at least, Ferrara corrected himself. Short, stocky, with a slightly crooked nose and an asymmetrical chin, he could hardly be described as handsome.

He had been on holiday in July, and Ferrara hadn't even noticed - that was how much he valued him! But maybe it wasn't his fault. He tended to rely on those of his men who were of proven experience, whereas Ascalchi, who had only been in Florence for just over a year, wasn't yet at ease here, however well he concealed it beneath his tough Roman exterior. He ought to use him more. Well, whether he liked it or not, now was his opportunity.

At dawn last Sunday a girl was found dying in the hills not far from here. She'd been drugged. She died yesterday afternoon.'

'Yes, Violante told me. An overdose, wasn't it?' Apparently'

'Maybe the drug was cut with some other crap, chief.

Unfortunately it's easy to get ripped off where dope's concerned. People who do drugs always run that risk.'

'Those who "do drugs", yes, but it's possible this poor girl was only thirteen. Do you think a girl of thirteen is the kind of person who "does drugs"?'

Gianni Ascalchi looked at him uncertainly, not sure what he was getting at. All he said was, 'Don't know.'

The telephone rang.

'Dr Francesco Leone,' Fanti announced. 'Put him on.'

Leone came on the line. 'Hello, Chief Superintendent. I hear you've been looking for me.'

'If it's you they've asked to do the autopsy on the girl who died at the Ospedale Nuovo, then I have.'

'You mean the junkie?'

Even to Leone, that was all the poor girl was. One less thing for society to worry about, now that she was dead.

'I mean the child,' Ferrara replied, making clear the difference in their viewpoints.

Leone ignored Ferrara's argumentative tone: they had known each other and respected each other for too many years to start splitting hairs. 'You've caught me red-handed, my dear Ferrara. I'm just on my way to the Ospedale Nuovo now to do the autopsy.'

'So soon? It hasn't even been twenty-four hours yet

'Don't worry, she's not in suspended animation. Her heart failed and they couldn't revive her. She's no longer among us, we're sure of that. It was the deputy prosecutor who told me to hurry things up. It's August, Ferrara . . .'

Or maybe there was someone who was 'in a hurry to have done with her, to get rid of her as quickly as possible', Ferrara thought: wasn't that what Violante had said?

'May I ask,' Leone continued, 'why this case should be of such interest to the head of the
Squadra Mobile?
From what I gather, it's a simple overdose, which isn't exactly uncommon these days - or am I mistaken?'

'No, I don't think you're mistaken. The fact is, my men haven't managed to identify the girl yet, we don't even know how old she was, and I was wondering if . . .'

Leone laughed heartily. 'You've come to the wrong address, my dear Ferrara. I'm good, I admit - one of the best in the field. But unless the poor girl swallowed her identity card, without chewing it, I don't think I can help you. Names and dates of birth aren't written in the DNA.'

Why did everyone have to make jokes all the time? What was so funny about a life that had barely begun and had already ended in the morgue? Maybe it was the only way they could live with the most unbearable aspects of their respective professions, but Ferrara wasn't like that. Years spent fighting crime in its various forms had made him feel like an explorer of an underground world which increasingly disturbed the apparently tranquil surface of daily life; a world in which he, like everyone, could easily become trapped.

He remembered the words the then-Commissioner, Angelo Duranti, had used in welcoming him to Florence as the newly appointed head of the
Squadra Mobile.
They all used to call Duranti 'Mephisto', because of his gloomy character, but many now missed him. 'Be careful, Chief Superintendent. In this city, if you stick your finger in shit, you're likely to pull out shovelfuls of the stuff!'

He was still fond of Duranti, and visited him every now and then at his house in Liguria, where he was spending his retirement looking at the sea and the Palmaria Islands, Tino and Tonetto, growing fruit trees and writing his memoirs. He was still a great teacher, full of invaluable lessons, not only in how to apply the law, but also in how to negotiate the vagaries of police bureaucracy as well as, more importantly, those of the human heart.

'I know that,' Ferrara said, after Leone's laughter had subsided. 'I wouldn't ask that much even of you. But we suspect she may have been a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, and you might be able to confirm that. Anyway, it's your fault, Doctor. You've got me used to surprises, so I'm expecting you to tell me something I can really use.'

'If she ever had an operation, or had dental care, then it's just possible we could find out her nationality . . . But if you're so interested, why don't you honour us with your presence?' It was a provocative question: Leone knew how averse Ferrara had become to such things over the years.

It had been ages since he had last attended an autopsy, a thankless task which he preferred to leave to others. Usually it fell to Rizzo, the most trusted of his men. For a moment, Ferrara looked at Ascalchi, who was sitting right there in front of him, but he dropped the idea: he had something else for Ascalchi to do.

'You say you're on your way to the hospital now?'

'The autopsy room at the hospital morgue, to be precise. Why do you ask?'

‘I’ll be there. In half an hour, is that okay?'

Leone gave a long, incredulous whistle. 'I'll wait for you in intensive care, in the consultant's office. But please don't be late. I have a feeling this d'Incisa fellow isn't very patient. What's so special about this unknown foreigner anyway?'

'She was young,' Ferrara commented laconically, bringing the conversation to a close.

Almost a child, don't you think so?' he said to Ascalchi, who had been patiently following the conversation to get a better idea of the case.

'At thirteen? What do you want me to say, chief? Some are still children, some hardly at all . . .'

'To me they're all still children, whether they like it or not. What can anyone understand at that age? What fault is it of theirs?'

'I blame the parents. They're the ones who should be thrown into prison.'

Yes, the parents. Perhaps this girl's parents had sold her, or perhaps they were still looking for her in some Eastern European country.

As you heard, the likeliest hypothesis at the moment, given that no one has come forward, is that she was an illegal immigrant. She may have fallen into the clutches of the Albanians or the Romanians or God knows who.'

'Right, chief,' Ascalchi said. 'We can check out the pushers, but it's a jungle out there . . .'

'So buy a machete. But not yet. For the moment you don't have to venture any further than Narcotics Division. True, you might come across a few savages there, but don't be deceived, they're good people. See if there any current investigations into cases of heroin overdose, and ask them how they see the situation in the city and the surrounding areas. Oh, and also try and find out the minimum age at which minors have access to drugs.' Thinking that Ascalchi hadn't quite understood, he added as he stood up, 'What age they start, is that clear?'

'I did understand what you meant, chief,' Ascalchi protested, also standing.

Narcotics was one of the divisions of the
Squadra Mobile
and occupied the last four rooms in the corridor on the first floor of Police Headquarters, the area furthest from prying eyes. Superintendent Ascalchi, who had never been there before, wondered if the choice of location had been deliberate. Certainly, the atmosphere was quite different from the rest of the Squad, and so were the officers, who were all very young and casually dressed. The men wore earrings, and the women had pierced navels, which they left proudly uncovered.

'Do you know where Ciuffi is?' he asked the first person he saw: a tall, well-built guy he wouldn't have liked to meet on a dark night in a street on the outskirts of town. Not even in the centre of town, come to think of it.

'Superintendent Ciuffi to you. Who the hell do you think you are?'

'Superintendent Ascalchi,' he replied coldly. 'Ferrara sent me.'

'I'm sorry, sir . . . Superintendent Ciuffi is in the last room on the left.'

'Thanks. Don't put yourself to any trouble, I can find the way' He left the officer rooted to the spot, looking astonished and mortified.

The head of the section was a friendly, talkative thirty-two-year-old Neapolitan. Ferrara had met him in a canteen during a summer seminar organised by the American police, where he had been doing a course on anti-Mafia strategies in Italy and Ciuffi was on a refresher course given by the DEA. After talking for fifteen minutes over a dish of cold chicken that tasted of plastic and overboiled potatoes - everyone was overdosing on ketchup and mustard to make it palatable - Ferrara had realised that this man was a first-class officer and decided that if ever he had his own squad he wanted him in it at all costs.

Unlike his colleagues, Ciuffi dressed normally. Ascalchi had only seen him once before, when he had arrived at Florence Police Headquarters for the first time and Ferrara had introduced him to all his colleagues.

'Plenty of work, eh?'

'This isn't Rome or Naples, but we aren't lagging far behind, I can tell you. There are lots of drugs around, and it's hard to keep up. We do what we can, as you can see.' Ciuffi pointed at the walls, which were covered with posters and newspaper cuttings about the team's most recent operations: a proud record, which Ferrara had tolerated because it was an incentive to further improvement. 'But there aren't that many of us, so what can we do?'

'How many exactly?'

'Twenty in all, more men than women. Most of them prepared to go undercover among the dealers.'

'I noticed. I was thinking I should raid the place.'

Luigi Ciuffi smiled. 'Real characters, eh? And you didn't see all of them. The best ones we keep in mothballs.'

Ascalchi didn't envy them. These were men who, when they went undercover, didn't come into the office and sometimes didn't even see their families for long periods. They were a select few, who ran the greatest risks and needed uncommon courage and a really cool head.

'So Ferrara has sent you to help me out, has he?' Ciuffi joked.

'Oh, no, not at all! Quite the opposite, you may be able to help us out

Ciuffi sighed. 'Don't worry, I got the idea. Okay, shoot.' A young girl died of an overdose yesterday' 'The one in the Ospedale Nuovo?'

Obviously, as head of Narcotics, he had read the initial report from the hospital. 'Yes.'

'We don't know anything about her yet. What's your interest?'

'We need to know if you're investigating any cases of heroin overdose where the stuff is either too pure or it's been cut with something harmful.'

'Affirmative.'

A lot of them?'

'Yes, we've had a sudden rash of them. Not that there weren't any before, of course there were. But they weren't so frequent and they were almost always relative overdoses. What we're getting now are a lot of absolute overdoses from heroin cut with starch, talcum powder, sometimes strychnine, the usual things, you know? There've been six cases in the last two months alone. Deputy Prosecutor Erminia Cosenza is in overall charge of the investigation.'

'Hold on, I don't quite follow. What's all this about relative and absolute overdoses?'

Luigi Ciuffi seemed pleased to have a chance to show off his expertise to a colleague. An absolute overdose is caused by the consumption of a dose, pure or cut, that's above general tolerance levels. A relative overdose is caused by the consumption of a dose higher than the particular tolerance level of a specific individual, and that can depend on a number of factors.'

Ascalchi ignored his colleague's somewhat didactic tone. 'So in cases of absolute overdose the dose would be fatal for anyone, whereas in cases of relative overdose only for some and not for others?'

'Precisely. And what we're getting in Florence at the moment is a lot of absolute overdoses.'

'How do you explain that?'

'The likeliest explanation is that there's a gang war going on for control of the territory' 'Between who?'

As you know, the Albanians are trying to muscle in on various illegal activities in Florence - including drugs, of course. I don't mean soft drugs, hashish, marijuana, they've been in absolute control there for some time. I'm talking about heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, crack - the whole kit and caboodle.'

Even Ascalchi was aware that Albanian gangs were active in Florence. He knew that for some years now there had been a huge increase in the number of prostitutes from Eastern Europe. The traditional figure of the pimp was on the way out, replaced by specialised groups who recruited women abroad, smuggled them into Italy, and once they had arrived, forced them into prostitution. The groups were well organised, efficient, highly feared, extremely violent and determined. They had made a lot of money from prostitution and now, if Ciuffi's hypothesis was correct, were investing heavily in drugs.

'One sign of this,' Ciuffi continued, 'is the number of fights and attempted murders involving North African pushers.'

'I don't follow you.'

'For years the North Africans have been the main, if not the exclusive suppliers to addicts in Florence and the province.'

'I know that, but where do the Albanians fit in?' 'Let me finish. They're the ones who supply the North Africans, but they're playing a double game.' 'What do you mean?'

'They're trying to lose them their customers. If the rumour starts spreading among addicts that the stuff the North Africans are selling isn't as good as it used to be and puts you in a coma, they've won. The addicts are going to look for other sources of supply, and the Albanians will be waiting for them with open arms.'

'So the bastards are supplying these stupid dealers with crap to make them lose face.'

'That's what we think. As I said, it's the likeliest explanation, and one we're actively working on. The Albanians are trying to monopolise the drug market, not just wholesale but retail too. We've had some tip-offs that bear this out, and we've got a few names . . . But you know what the Albanians are like! They never stay in one place for very long. Today they're in Florence, tomorrow in Milan, Naples, Turin . . . And the gangs do each other favours, swap members. With all these people working in different places, it's harder to identify and investigate them.'

Ascalchi nodded.

Extreme mobility was one of the characteristics of the Albanian underworld. The traditional methods of surveillance didn't work any more. Most of the time, no sooner had you located one of the criminals than you lost all trace of him, because the Albanians rarely used the same means of transport or the same telephones twice.

In addition, they frequently resorted to violence in their daily operations and as a means of resolving conflicts, had fingers in many different pies, used intimidation, and had a code of silence typical of Mafia-style organisations. Organised into clans, following the traditions of their home country, they used the same methods as the Mafia but with even greater determination and cruelty.

'I see what you're saying. If this girl who died yesterday was supplied by a North African who'd been screwed by an Albanian, we're fucked, right?'

'If you're thinking of nabbing the dealer who gave her the stuff, I'd say you were. Either we grab him in some other operation, or you forget about it.'

'Sorry, one more thing. At what age do the kids around here start taking drugs?'

'Why?'

'Because the girl in the Ospedale Nuovo may have been only thirteen, or even less.'

A grave expression appeared on Ciuffi's face. 'Really? We came across a boy of sixteen two months ago. Younger than that I find hard to believe. Though it's hard to know where the limits are these days. I don't know if there's anything that would surprise us any more.'

Ascalchi went back to Ferrara to report, but only Fanti was there.

'Involuntary manslaughter,' he said in answer to Fanti's questioning look. 'The culprit is a black bastard who doesn't know his arse from his elbow manipulated by a white bastard who strikes at random and doesn't give a damn who the victim is. Got that?'

'I'll pass it on.'

'Forget it,' Superintendent Ascalchi said, not sure if Fanti was serious or pulling his leg. 'Just tell him I was looking for him.'

'Join the queue, Superintendent. The Commissioner has been looking for him too.'

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