And Then You Die, Michael Dibdin’s latest installment in the Aurelio Zen series, is a wicked, twisting tale that pits Zen against invisible assassins and the possibility of forced retirement. As the plot unfolds, and Zen ponders his uncertain future, bodies are stacking up around him. And Then You Die is another exceptionally surprising, consistently funny triumph from a master of the genre.
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Aurelio Zen was dead to the world. Under the next umbrella, a few desirable metres closer to the sea, Massimo Rutelli was just dead.
The two men were different in just about every other respect too. Zen was wearing a short-sleeved cotton shirt, lightweight wool trousers and leather sandals, and lay back in his deckchair in the shade of the beach umbrella with the brim of a Panama hat lowered over his eyes. Massimo Rutelli was naked except for a minuscule black swimsuit and an orange towel loosely draped over his upper back, and was lying prone on the green canvas lounger provided for sun-worshippers, his hands resting on the surface of the perfectly smooth sand. But the main difference between them was that one was dead and the other was dreaming.
The dream was one that Zen had had recurrently for many months now. He had no clear idea how long exactly. His memories of the period since l’incidente were as partial, confused and unreliable as those of his childhood. As for the dream, it always involved three fixed elements – a bridge, an imminent disaster, and a happy ending – but the specific properties, locations and special effects varied from version to version.
The bridge, for example, could be as small as a concrete culvert under a motorway, or a massive structure so long that neither end was visible from the middle. On one occasion it had been a wooden trestle across a fast-flowing river. A steam locomotive pulling a train was approaching the far side while the ignited fuse fizzed down through the undergrowth towards the stacked sticks of dynamite. But it had been lit too late, and the carriages crossed safely before the trestles were flung spectacularly up into the air, to fall again like so many matchsticks.
Another instance had been a rope footbridge suspended across an abyss whose depths were concealed by thick, slowly coiling currents of mist. In this case the threat had come in the form of a plague of shiny black beetles nibbling away at the ropes with their razor-sharp mandibles. It was only when the last strand seemed about to give way that it became apparent that the guy lines were not made of hemp but steel cable, against which the horde of insects was powerless.
This time, though, the ever-resourceful dream director had come up with yet another scenario. Since the 1960s, there had been talk of building a bridge across the Straits of Messina to replace the slow and inadequate ferry services which provided the only link between Sicily and the mainland. At over three kilometres, it would be one of the longest in the world if ever completed, but it was not so much the engineering and construction problems which had stymied the project thus far as the economic and political ones.
The estimated cost was so vast that it was commonly expressed in dollars – $4.5 billion was one suggested figure – since the corresponding amount in lire was of an order comprehensible only to astrophysicists. During the long decades when the Christian Democrats had ruled the country, no one had had any doubt into whose hands that money would go, not to mention the inevitable cost overruns and top-ups for unforeseen circumstances which would probably at least double the original estimate. Unfinished motorways, power plants built on hastily drained swamps and steel mills erected hundreds of kilometres from the nearest source of iron ore had been a commonplace at that period, but even the most brazen politicians backed off from the prospect of being seen to hand their friends and supporters the best part of one per cent of the country’s GNP. And so the bridge had never been built.
But in Aurelio Zen’s dream it had, and he was in the middle of it, speeding away from Sicily, back to the safety of the mainland. The bridge itself was not the graceful suspension span which the real-life engineers had designed, but a rusty old wrought-iron girder affair originally designed to carry a railway track, now fitted out with a makeshift roadway in the form of wooden planks. The car Zen was riding in was also a period piece, a huge pre-war convertible with bulgy cartoonish curves driven by a grim-looking uniformed chauffeur wearing aviator goggles. ‘This is a dangerous road,’ he muttered melodramatically. Zen took no notice. He was enjoying the bright sunlight, the invigorating breeze, the faint cries of the itinerant watermelon vendors on some distant beach.
They were going so fast that when the gaping hole in the planking appeared dead ahead they were almost on top of it. There was no time to brake, so the driver accelerated and the car leapt the gap, landing on the very edge of the further side, its rear wheels dangling over the void. Zen and the driver scrambled out just as the vehicle tilted back and slid off the edge of the planking. It was only now that Zen realized that there had been a third person in the car all along, a young man sitting in the back seat. He was neatly dressed in a suit and tie and seemed perfectly calm. The only odd detail was that his chest and feet were bare.
But Zen had no time to think about this, for no sooner had the car disappeared than other cracks and cavities began to open up in the surface of the bridge. It had been designed to withstand an earthquake stronger than the one that had levelled Messina in 1908, but this one must have been stronger still. Whole sections went tumbling down into the water far below, until the only one remaining was the short length where Zen was perched, and it too was now growling and shuddering beneath his feet. But the cardinal rule of these dreams was that the hero always emerged unscathed, and at this point the director – clearly out of ideas about how to save him this time – brought the episode to an abrupt end. The screen went blank as Aurelio Zen woke up.
He raised the brim of his hat and looked about him. Everything was as it always was, of course. That was the charm of Versilia, the most essential of the many elements which drew people back there year after year. There were never any surprises. Nothing unpredictable ever happened. That’s what Franco’s clients wanted. They weren’t interested in the new, the exotic, the strange or the different. What they wanted was exactly the same as they’d been getting there for years, if not decades, and in some cases even generations. That was how long it could take to get a front row seat at the bagno. They were as sought after as their equivalent at La Scala, where many of Franco’s patrons were regulars during the winter. Zen’s allotted place was about a third of the way back from the water’s edge, and he had only been able to get that because the rights in it belonged to a friend of various parties with a professional interest in keeping Zen alive and out of sight until they needed him. Without their pull, he wouldn’t have been able to get a place right outside the toilets.
Not that he’d been able to hang on to it for long, he thought bitterly, glancing to his left. The man was still there, arrogantly sprawled out face down on the lounger that was rightfully Zen’s, the minimalistic swimsuit displaying his massive buttocks to rather too good advantage. Zen was pleased to note that the lower half of the man’s body was fully exposed to the sun now, and a nasty reddish burn was already beginning to set in on the pale skin of his legs. Serve the bastard right, he thought, moving his own chair a little further back into the deepest shade. Although the rigidly hierarchical pecking order of the beach meant nothing to him, he had become enough of a regular by now to feel abstractly affronted at this unexpected and unwelcome irregularity. The whole point of Versilia was that such things were not supposed to happen there.
The scene before him looked as flat and notional as a theatrical backdrop, two dimensions passing uneasily for three. Above, the azure sky, streaked with diaphanous shreds of white haze. Below this vast benignity, the clustered ombrelloni, their bright primary colours an ensign declaring the ownership of each strip of beach. The ones in the foreground were all green, as were the chairs and loungers, but behind them came serried ranks of red, yellow, blue in various shades. The white poles beneath acted as the only vertical element in the scene, breaking the seemingly endless stretch of beach into manageable rooms and apartments lacking only walls and a ceiling.
Horizontally, the divisions were still more strongly marked. Each bathing establishment had an internal passageway in the form of a boardwalk bisecting its allotment. There were two rows of ombrelloni on either side, each centred on its own parasol positioned exactly two and a half metres from its neighbours. At the end of the boardwalk, below the high tide line, was the sea, but no one except the children paid much attention to that. The sea was merely a necessary pretext for everything else: the sensual languor, the total indolence, the studied informality of manners, the varying degrees of nudity on display. If anything, the sand – immaculately cleaned, smoothed and groomed each morning by Franco and his two sons – was the more palpable attraction. Soaking up the sun each day, until by lunchtime a pair of sandals became a necessity for those with sensitive soles, then radiating it back through the late afternoon and early evening, the dense expanse of tan granules responded to the serene sky above, the precession of the shadows cast by the parasols marking the progress of another flawless, utterly predictable day at the beach.
There were people in view too, of course. Indeed, the bagno was surprisingly full for a weekday. But Zen was an outsider to all the complex and overlapping cliques, circles and extended families, so for him the human element was of less interest and importance than the setting, mere extras dotted about as part of the background. They were mostly female and mostly middle-aged, although there were more than a few younger mothers and their children. What men there were had a decidedly supernumerary air about them, and tended to sit slightly apart from the rest of the family. To Zen’s right, near the top end of the beach, a young couple chatted in a desultory way while the girl painstakingly squeezed out the pustules on her boyfriend’s back, but most people their age were either at work or further down the beach at Viareggio, where the action was. The majority of the bikinis in Versilia were being worn by women who didn’t seem to realize or care that they had reached a point in life when any men around were more likely to be mentally dressing them than the reverse.
The exception was Gemma, if that was indeed her name. There was no reason to suppose that it wasn’t, but ever since l’incidente Zen had been living in a world where people’s names, assuming they bothered to offer one, were at best generic flags of convenience, polite formulae designed to ease social contacts, of no significance or substance in themselves.
But of course Gemma belonged not to that world but to the real one whose outline Zen could vaguely make out, ever clearer but still distant, from the middle of the bridge he was slowly and painfully traversing, hour by hour, day by day, week after week. One of the most delightful things about Gemma was that she knew nothing of all that. Apart from shopkeepers and taxi drivers, she was the only person Zen had come into contact with since the ‘incident’ who didn’t know. This had lent an extra charm and interest to their brief and superficial encounters. Zen was using her, he realized, as a test case, looking anxiously to see if he could once again pass for normal. The results, so far, had been encouraging.
He had checked on Gemma as soon as he awakened. There had, of course, been no need. Like everyone else on the beach, with the exception of the pushy newcomer to Zen’s left, she was exactly where she ought to be, exactly where he’d known she would be: stretched out on her own canvas lounger, her long delicate feet dangling over the end, the right one twitching from time to time like the tail of a cow bothered by flies. Her face was turned away from him, but he knew she wasn’t sleeping. She was napping, a very different matter. They had once had a mock-earnest argument about this fine distinction, as near as they had so far come to moving beyond the strictly conventional.
Gemma had the ombrellone directly opposite Zen’s, which made it possible for them to acknowledge each other’s existence. Social life at Franco’s was rigidly hierarchical. Those in the front rows, the old aristocracy of the establishment, ‘knew’ only each other, although they might occasionally so far unbend as to grant a nod and a word to a friend or close acquaintance – possibly even a superior in the world left behind where the sand began – who was stacked further back, in the faceless ranks of parvenus and hoi polloi. But in general casual fraternization was permitted only with those seated immediately to one side or facing your own designated place. This had made it possible for Gemma and Zen to exchange glances, nods and eventually greetings; the fact that they were much of an age, and apparently unattached, had made it inevitable. Once it had been established that they both avoided the beach when the weekend crowds descended, a sort of light, meaningless connection formed.
After a while Gemma started to stir, and then sat up lazily, looking around her. She was a slim, leggy, small-breasted woman, and surprisingly tall. She noticed Zen watching her, but didn’t wave or smile. Instead she folded up the magazine she’d been reading, found the linen bag in which she kept her beach paraphernalia, put on her rubber sandals and then walked over the wooden pathway to where he was sitting.
‘Signor Pier Giorgio,’ she said. ‘You’re awake.’
Zen gave a self-deprecatory grimace.
‘Just pretending,’ he said.
Gemma tilted her eyes and head towards the intruder who had taken Zen’s place and gestured interrogatively. Zen signed back that he didn’t have a clue.
‘I was just going to get a coffee,’ Gemma said. ‘Would you like one?’
‘That’s very kind.’
Gemma turned without a word or gesture and walked up the beach towards the low shack in whose shaded bar Franco dispensed coffee, soft drinks, beer, light snacks and ice cream. I wonder if she can sew, Zen thought. Since his mother had died, his clothes were falling to pieces. He could always take them to a seamstress, of course, but paying for that kind of work seemed like paying for sex. It took all the goodness out of it.
He caught himself up with a shock. This was all too typical of the free-flowing, dreamlike way his brain was working these days. Whatever happened between him and Gemma, it would never be anything more than the classic beach romance, he reminded himself sternly, at whatever level from flirting to fornication. Nothing more. He had to start thinking straight again. He needed to get back to life, back to work. But there was nothing he could do about that. He was trapped in limbo, midway across the bridge, neither here nor there. He closed his eyes again.
The next thing he was aware of was a woman’s cry. Gemma was standing about halfway between her place and the complex of changing rooms, showers and bar area. She held a coffee cup in each hand, and was staring down at her lower body. Behind her, a young man wearing a T-shirt and jeans was running off at full tilt towards the street. Zen got to his feet, but Gemma was already surrounded by other people who had been seated closer to her. He could hear the excited chatter of voices expressing dismay and disgust. After a few moments, Gemma brushed off the crowd of sympathizers, saying something about needing to change, and returned to the bar. Zen followed.
It was blissfully cool and shady under the roof of straw matting supported on wires above the bar area. Gemma was nowhere to be seen. Zen sidled up to the bar, where Franco acknowledged his presence with the ghost of a nod. He had accepted the arrangement that his long-time client Girolamo Rutelli had imposed, and allowed this stranger access to the facilities rented annually by the family for as long as anyone could remember, but he made a point of reminding Zen that this made him no more than an honorary member of the club, the guest of a member, to be accommodated correctly but without undue warmth.
If Zen had been a bit more forthcoming about his own circumstances, this might have changed, but he had no such inclination. His cover story was paper-thin, and depended for its success on no one taking the trouble to check it at all carefully. Franco’s role in life, Zen had already realized, apart from milking the summer trade for all its three months’ life was worth, was to act as the catchment area, filter and conduit for any local gossip worth knowing. Radio Franco was always on the air, and if Zen had allowed himself to be quizzed about the vague and unsupported fictions he had been provided with, he would have been exposed for the fraud he was in no time at all. On the other hand, refusing to reply to Franco’s seemingly casual questions would have been equally inadvisable. Zen’s strategy had been to keep his distance, treating Franco not as the universal uncle he aspired to be but simply as the owner of the bagno, a paid service provider of no personal interest whatever.
He seated himself at one of the metal tables in the bar area, but did not order anything. After a few minutes, Gemma emerged from her changing room, wearing her street clothes. Their eyes met, and Zen beckoned her over.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
Gemma tossed her head.
‘Oh, just a stupid accident. I was on my way back with the coffee, when this young idiot barged into me and knocked it all over me. It was quite painful, and it stained my suit of course. I’ve washed it out, but I hate wearing wet clothes so I’m going to go home.’
‘Was he the one who ran off?’
‘Who? Oh, yes. The funny thing is he was standing there staring at you.’
‘Yes. You were sitting there with your eyes closed, and this kid was standing on the boardwalk staring at you, as if you were some kind of star or something. Then he suddenly whirled round and ran straight into me with the coffee.’
The word seemed to jolt Zen’s memory. He looked up at the bar and directed the owner to bring them two coffees. The owner scowled and yelled inside for his wife.
‘What did he look like, this man?’ Zen asked Gemma.
‘Like anyone else that age.’
‘About thirty, I suppose.’
‘You don’t remember anything else about him?’
‘I only saw him for an instant. After that I was covered in scalding coffee and had other things to think about.’
She reflected for a moment.
‘He had something written on his shirt,’ she said at last.
‘I don’t remember. Some slogan in English. What does it matter?’
Franco’s wife brought their coffees. Zen smiled.
‘It doesn’t, as long as you’re all right. It’s just odd, that’s all. Nothing unusual ever happens here, and this is the second case today.’
‘What’s the first?’
‘That man who’s taken my place.’
‘You should have called Franco, had him moved.’
‘I didn’t want to make a scene. What’s the point? The Brunellis never come during the week anyway, so I just took their spot.’
Gemma finished her coffee.
‘Well, I’ll be going,’ she said.
Zen stood up as she did.
‘I don’t suppose you’d like to have dinner tonight,’ he found himself saying.
She regarded him intensely.
‘Dinner? But why?’
He gestured embarrassedly.
This seemed to give her pause.
‘Why not?’ she repeated at length.
‘Good. About eight at Augusto’s. Do you know it?’
‘Of course, everyone knows it. Have you made a booking?’
Zen shook his head.
‘Then we’ll never get in,’ Gemma said decisively. ‘They’re booked up weeks in advance.’
‘I can get us a table. Trust me.’
Gemma looked at him again in that odd, intense way of hers.
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘I’ll trust you.’
She gave him a vague smile and walked off down the pathway at the side of the building leading to the car park. Zen headed back to the beach.