During a bungled robbery attempt, Raffaello Beggiato takes a young woman and her eight-year-old child hostage. He later murders both in cold blood. Beggiato is arrested, tried, and sentenced to life. Undone by his loss, the victims’ father and husband, Silvano Contin, plunges into an ever-deepening abyss until the day, fifteen years later, when the murderer seeks his pardon. The wounded Silvano turns predator as he ruthlessly plots his revenge.
A riveting story of guilt, revenge, and justice, Massimo Carlotto’s Death’s Dark Abyss tells the tale of two men and the savage crime that irreversibly binds them. Two dramatic stories meet in this stylish, passionate indictment of a legal system that seems powerless both to compensate victims and to rehabilitate perpetrators.
“[A] remarkable study of corruption and redemption in a world where revenge is best served ice-cold.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The master of Mediterranean noir has fashioned a dark, twisted tale of retribution.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“[A] subtle and disturbing tale of the effects of violence on its survivors . . . The author manages to make Contin’s descent into hell plausible and heartbreaking, and devises an ingenious and even touching resolution.” —Publishers Weekly
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A quick glance at the mailbox before heading home — my routine on week days. Mine was the first in a bank of six gold-colored aluminum boxes, each with a glass slot and a name computer-printed by the condo's managing agent. Right away I saw the lone envelope was a letter. Nobody had written to me in years; just bills and flyers stuffed in the box every once in a while. The lawyer's name, typed in flowing letters, gave no clue. Back inside the apartment I placed the envelope on the kitchen table, slid my meal from the rosticceria into the microwave, and went to change. That day had been a real grind. I resoled and replaced the heels on a rack of shoes. And I duplicated a bunch of keys. Every month started off like this. As soon as people pocketed their pay, they hit the shopping centers to spend it. My shop was planted right in front of the supermarket check-out lanes; it was impossible to miss the sign, "Heels in a Jiffy." The customers dropped off their shoes or keys and picked them up after they filled their carts.
The timer announced the food was hot. From the fridge I grabbed a carton of wine, the cheese, and the utensils. I switched on the TV. I steered clear of the news and surfed for a decent program. Picked a quiz show. A pile of euros if you guessed the right answers. The host was simpatico enough, a guy with a belly; the contestant was a woman, a teacher from down south, thin as a rail. Her voice had an annoying nasal twang. She got eliminated before I polished off the lasagna. During the commercial I opened the letter. I calmly wiped the knife with a paper napkin and slipped it under the edge of the flap.
Dear Signor Contin,
My client, Signor Raffaello Beggiato, has entrusted me with drafting a petition for pardon. The process requires that the parties who suffered loss or injury state an opinion concerning this request. Enclosed you will find a letter in which my client asks for your forgiveness. While I realize that this new chapter in the judicial proceedings can only revive painful memories for you, I urge you to read it with a profound sense of humanity. Signor Beggiato has served more than fifteen years of his sentence. He is now stricken with a grave form of cancer whose course does not seem to offer any hope of recovery. My client's wish is to be able to end his life in freedom. In the hope that you can understand Signor Beggiato's human drama and see your way clear to forgive him, I send you my sincerest regards.
Alfonso De Bastiani, Esquire
My hands were shaking. I took a long swig of wine. Then the quiz show came back with another contestant. A computer technician from Viterbo. I couldn't focus on the question, but the applause from the audience told me he guessed the answer. The host went over the ground rules in the competition, then announced another commercial break. I took the other letter out of the envelope.
Dear Signor Contin,
I dare to make this appeal to you only because I am desperate. I have learned that I am sick with cancer and there is no hope. Up to now I have served fifteen years. I know this is not much for the terrible crimes I am guilty of, but the sickness will put an end to the sentence too. I beg you to forgive me and make a statement that favors a pardon. My only wish is to be able to die a free man. I realize I am asking you to have pity on somebody who stole the dearest objects of your affection. But you are different from me, and you are certainly capable of such a noble gesture.
The quiz show came back again. The next question hinged on an episode in the private life of a famous singer. The kind that drives kids crazy. The contestant turned a whiter shade of pale. Gone was his confidence — and his smile. He didn't know the answer. I snatched the remote and turned off the TV.
I read Beggiato's letter again. That fucking son-of-a-bitch murderer was asking me to pity him? I balled up the letters and threw them in the trash. Pity was a feeling that belonged to another life, before death had put mine under wraps. So cancer was killing him: that was nothing but an act of justice. And it was just that Beggiato should suffer to the very end. In jail, obviously. Surrounded by lifers and guards, with no loved ones and no comforting words. His death wasn't going to ease the pain that had ruled my life for fifteen years, invading my time, my thoughts, my daily routines. The pain throbbed like a festering wound, but it made me feel alive and helped me get my bearings in the dark immensity of death. The news about the murderer's fate fired my curiosity. How would Beggiato kick? Over the years I'd learned how to categorize different ways of dying. Some people die in their sleep and never notice a thing. Others pass to a better life suddenly, in the very instant it takes for a thought to form. But this happens only with adults. At eight years old, my son Enrico definitely knew what death was, but he was too scared to be aware of the risk. He heard the shot and felt the burning trail the bullet dug into his body, and his life ceased after a handful of seconds. At least that's what the coroner told me, and when I asked him if my son had enough time to see death's darkness, he rested a hand on my shoulder, rattling off some words that fit the occasion. And yet my question wasn't senseless. I was with Clara when she died in the hospital: she'd seen the darkness.
"Everything's gone dark, Silvano," she said in a loud voice, squeezing my hand tight. "I can't see anymore, I'm scared, scared, help me, it's so dark."
Darkness, fear. Death's dark abyss. Some, like Clara, die after a drawn-out agony. It's the worst way to go. Their facial features get twisted, their limbs shrink. This was the end fate should save for Raffaello Beggiato, the murderer.
I straightened up the kitchen. Then I opened a drawer and took out the photos of Clara and Enrico. They were not mementoes of happy times. Those were buried in the boxes that preserved my former life, stored in a rented garage. The only photos I've kept within reach were shot on the steel table at the coroner's. I studied my wife's and son's chests, cut open and plundered by scapels. The pain throbbed more intensely, and a twinge rose from my stomach to my throat. But the thought of Beggiato's illness helped me dodge my usual tears. That miserable fuck thought I was capable of noble gestures. To forgive you need to have feelings, a life. All I had left was in my hand at that moment.
Once upon a time I'd been a man who was content with his lot in life. I was a sales agent for top-drawer wines. I had a secretary and tooled around in a Mercedes. I had a wife and son. Friends and relatives. Clara was a beautiful woman. I fell in love with her at a party, and we were married in two years. I loved her body and her joie de vivre. Enrico arrived three years later. A sweet, carefree kid. Thirteen years together. Then Enrico and Clara crossed paths with Beggiato and his accomplice, and everything was over. For them and me.
That day I happened to be in an enoteca. I was selling one of the prime oak-aged cabernets when my secretary phoned.
"Silvano, hurry to the hospital. Clara had an accident." In the corridor there were too many police for a simple accident. A doctor told me to step on it; Clara didn't have much time left.
Excited, overlapping voices referred to a tragic fatality.
"Where's my son? He's O.K., isn't he?"
An inspector's pitiful lie sent me into the intensive care unit, worried only about Clara. I came out asking myself how I was going to get the news to Enrico. Only then did I learn the truth. A robbery, two dead, one criminal in custody, the other on the run.
I retain only confused memories of those events. There were so many people at the funeral. An endless succession of hugs, handshakes, comforting words.
My photo ended up in all the newspapers, along with Clara's, Enrico's, and their murderer's. Everybody in town knew me. I couldn't go anywhere without getting stopped by someone. They all pitied me. Right away I realized I'd have to find another job. I couldn't show up at an enoteca or a restaurant to ply my pricey wines. To sell them you had to smile, crack jokes, make small talk, act like you were sharp and on top of things. But I was the guy whose wife and son had been killed. And my clients would've always remembered it, judging my every word. Anyway, work wasn't a problem. I'd put aside enough cash to start a new business.
My mind was filled with a single thought: the capture of Beggiato's sidekick. The police had no idea who he was, and the murderer hadn't confessed. The idea that he was wandering around foot-loose and fancy free literally drove me crazy. Every day I turned up at the police station. Valiani, the superintendent in charge of investigations, would shake his head, spread his arms, and grumble some stock phrases.
I decided to carry out my own investigation. Through the lawyer who represented me in the proceedings against Beggiato, I got in touch with a private detective, an ex-marshal in the carabinieri. He squeezed me for a lot of dough, and the only thing he discovered was that the murderer had been linked to some whore who worked night clubs, Giorgia Valente.
I pretended to be a john, but she made me right away. Without beating around the bush she told me to stop breaking her balls. That's just how she put it. I threatened to give her name to the papers, and she changed her tune. She told me she knew nothing about the robbery; Raffaello kept her in the dark about his business. She explained whores were considered unreliable in the underworld. Raffaello used to hang out with a lot of people. The girl gave me a list of names I later handed over to Valiani. But none of them turned out to be involved.
The search for the robber stopped me from going to pieces completely. I feared the time when I'd have to face up to the real world. Friends and relatives smothered me with all their attentions. I started avoiding them. Particularly my father and mother. With the excuse of bringing me something to eat, they'd drop by my place almost every day. The house was still thick with the presence of Enrico and Clara. My parents couldn't keep back the tears for more than a few minutes, and I couldn't take on the added burden of their hopelessness.
Around a year later the trial was held in the Court of Assizes. My lawyer tried to strike a deal with Beggiato's new defense attorney: the accomplice's name in exchange for the plaintiff's support of the request for a lesser sentence than life. Nothing doing. The defendant decided to stick to the code of honor among thieves and risk life in prison. Beggiato showed up in a dark blue suit and a flashy tie. He never looked in my direction. But I didn't take my eyes off him. He was a typical thirtysomething; he didn't bear the slightest resemblance to the criminals in TV movies. Didn't look like the kind of guy who'd go out one day, slip a balaclava over his head, and shoot an eight-year-old boy and his mamma. When he was questioned, he gave one-word answers. The presiding judge asked him three times to confess the name of his accomplice. But he kept on repeating he couldn't.
The public prosecutor was relentless and efficient. He asked for the maximum sentence, and I noticed a couple jurors clearly nodding in approval. The defense attorney limited himself to an appeal for clemency; his only argument was the pointlessness of a life sentence when the convict might eventually be reintegrated in society. What a load of bullshit. Everybody in town wanted an exemplary sentence. During breaks in the trial, journalists came up and tactfully interviewed me. Beggiato's mother, a grubby, hopeless woman, chased them away, bombarding them with insults.
The defendant gave a statement before the court retired to chambers. He repeated for the zillionth time that he wasn't the shooter. A judge on the panel shrugged. Idle chatter.
When the presiding judge uttered the phrase "life imprisonment," the people who had followed the trial exploded into unrestrained applause. Beggiato, pale as a corpse, didn't move a muscle.
A journalist stopped me at the courthouse door. "What will you do now?" he asked.
I didn't have the desire, let alone the energy, to start living again. The parish priest urged me to find strength in God. I'd been deeply shaken by his homily at the funeral because of the corny simplemindedness of his remedy: faith will help us overcome the pain of mourning and one day we'll all find ourselves before God who in the meantime loves us and watches over us from heaven above. Amen. I'd abandoned the church many years ago, as soon as I'd finished secondary school. Not for ideological motives or after some episode of internal strife. It was just that religion was foreign to me. I felt ridiculous when I thought of turning to a superior being. That was about it. A cousin who was a psychologist advised me to seek the help of a specialist in order to work out my grief. Everyone, without exception, wanted me to rebuild my life. I didn't even try it. To me their words were empty and false because I didn't possess the tools to confront death rationally. I couldn't seek consolation in faith, and psychoanalysis seemed just as foreign as religion. I was Silvano Contin, the husband and father of two crime victims. The town would've never forgiven me if I picked up the pieces and went back to a normal life. Of course I could've always relocated and tried to start over from scratch. But what nobody understood was that my being had been plunged into the dark immensity of death. How could I love another woman or raise another son with the constant memory of Clara's voice? "Everything's gone dark, Silvano. I can't see anymore. I'm scared, scared, it's so dark."
Those words now beat out the rhythm of my life, dulling colors and tastes. I could only live with my pain in the hope that the other criminal would be caught and punished. His capture wasn't going to improve my existence, but at least the score would've been evened up, and the sense of loss that sometimes kept me from thinking rationally — maybe that'd disappear.
I sold the house and moved to a new, anonymous condominium in the suburbs. Every object that recalled the past I packed away and buried in a garage. Every month I paid the rent on it, but never did I open the door.
With my savings I set up a business in a new shopping center about ten kilometers from the city. The work was easy. It netted a decent income and allowed me to have superficial relationships with customers.
I found it harder to cut myself off from loved ones and friends. Fortunately, my wife's family decided on their own to sever relations. But it was really painful to see my parents, even if I visited them only on Sundays and obligatory holidays. I was their only child; Enrico had been their only grandchild. Banalities alternated with long silences and sudden outbursts of weeping, interrupted by hate-filled rants against Beggiato and his mysterious accomplice. Within three years my parents both died. My father suffered a heart attack at the supermarket, my mother a stroke in her sleep.
As the years passed, my look also changed. I lost hair, put on a few kilos, and started to wear clothes from department stores. I used to shop in the most exclusive boutiques. I'd always go with Clara, she'd make the choices, she had taste. In any case, if someone recognized me on the street, they'd pretend they hadn't seen me. I in turn did nothing to encourage a greeting. I lowered my eyes and shot straight ahead. Embarrassment makes people say the stupidest things.
In the meantime, the murderer's lawyer tried to save his client from life in prison. I didn't show up for the appeal process, not even for the final decision in the Court of Cassation. Beggiato clearly wasn't going to talk, and my lawyer was more than sufficient to represent me. The life sentence was upheld, and the murderer also served three years of solitary confinement during the day, as the court had stipulated.
I kept going to the police station for ages. First once a week, then once a month, until Superintendent Valiani lost patience and told me to stop bothering him. The case was closed. Beggiato was in prison, and his sidekick got away with it. The cops were human beings who did what they could. "All" they could.
For a time I'd also visit the jeweler who was the victim of the robbery. He and his wife gave me a list of the jewelry and helped me put together profiles of their dishonest colleagues, the ones who could've acted as fences. It turned out to be another dead end. The loot had vanished into thin air, like the other robber.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death's Dark Abyss"
Copyright © 2004 Edizioni e/o.
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