Medusa takes us on an exploration of the dark history of post-war Italy and a modern-day sightseeing tour of what Zen calls Italia Lite. In the urbane and pragmatic Zen, world-class mystery novelist Michael Dibdin has given us a detective unlike any other. And in this latest installment of this critically acclaimed series, we are treated to a mystery that drips with intrigue and a thriller so satisfying the pages cannot be turned fast enough.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
An oily fog had mystified the streets, sheathing the façades to either side, estranging familiar landmarks and coating the windows with a skein of liquid seemingly denser than water. Gabriele tried to edge away from the fat woman in the next seat, who was phoning in a gruesomely detailed account of some elderly relative's colostomy, but her bulk still left him no room to open his newspaper in comfort. The only thing he could read with any ease was the headline, which referred to hostilities in progress in some distant land where young men were killing and being killed. Outside, the stalled traffic snarled and yelped. The tram rumbled along its dedicated right-of-way through the shrouded city, the bell clanging intermittently in warning of its approach.
'God knows!' the fat woman was saying. 'First I have to pick up the car from Pia, assuming she's there yet, which I doubt, and after that it's anyone's guess with this damned fog.'
Gabriele hugged the window, turning up the collar of his green loden coat in a symbolic attempt to screen the woman out. He liked the fog, the world quietened down and closed in. Glossy turned to matt, every stridency was muted, substance leached out of the brute matter all around. Things became notions, the brash present a vague memory.
By some parallel process of slippage, his innumerable childhood memories of foggy days morphed into other memories. The fog of illness, real or feigned, of fevers and flu and febril-ity. 'I don't feel well, Mamma.' She was always eager to believe him, and knowing that he was giving her pleasure alleviated whatever slight guilt he might have felt in faking or exaggerating his symptoms. His mother liked him to be ill. It made her feel needed. Sometimes he had even suspected that she knew he was malingering, but forgave him, perhaps even encouraged him.
Fog to Gabriele also meant the feather duvet that his mother fluffed up and floated down over him while the impotent clock insisted that he should be in school, with its horde of bullies and swots. 'My cloud,' he'd called it. Weightless and warm, flung back as soon as his mother had left the room so that he could run to the bookcase and pick out a selection of novels to take back to bed, folding the cloud over him again. Books were another form of fog, dipping down to infiltrate and insidiously undermine the authoritative, official version, showing it up for the sham it was. He knew the stories were all made up, the characters puppets, the outcome predetermined, so why did they seem more real than reality? And why was no one else shocked by this gleeful scandal?
The tram squealed to a halt and the fat woman got up, still talking continuously on her mobile, stepped out into the street and instantly evaporated. The doors closed again and the tram lumbered into motion. With the seat next to him now empty, Gabriele spread out his paper and briefly skimmed the ongoing international and political stories. As usual, they reminded him of his mother's dictum regarding left-over food: 'Just add one new ingredient, and you can serve it up again and again.'
Here in the old centre of the city, the fog seemed even thicker, far more real than the transient hints of stone and glass formed and dissolved in the opaque vistas it offered. Gabriele turned to the Cronaca pages and read about a domestic homicide in Genoa, a drug death in Turin, and the discovery of a corpse in an abandoned military tunnel high up in the Dolomites.
The tram slowed to its next stop, the one before his. Gabriele closed the paper and folded it vertically so that it formed a tight short baton, then thrust it into his pocket and got off along with seven other people. He waited by the stop, feigning a coughing fit, until they had dispersed in the fog. The tram rolled away with its cargo of light, leaving him purblind in the miasma.
He crossed to the pavement, hurrying to avoid the lights of a car which turned out to be much closer than it had appeared, then stumbled along in the direction the tram had taken, stopping every so often to look and listen and to sniff the laden air. After a few blocks a café appeared, botched together at the last moment from fragments of gleam and glow. Gabriele paused for a moment, then pushed open the door.
He had never got off the tram at this stop before, and never been in this café, so it was only natural that he should take a vivid interest in every detail of the layout, décor, and above all the clientele. He inspected the other customers carefully, paying particular attention to those who entered after him. When his cappuccino and brioche arrived, he took them to the very end of the marble bar, where it curved around to meet the wall. From there he had a view of the entire room, and of the only entrance. The patrons appeared to be just the sort of people you would expect to find in that sort of café in that area of Milan at that time in the morning: solid, professional, well-heeled and preoccupied with their own concerns. They all stood in couples or larger groups and none of them paid him the slightest attention.
Gabriele took the newspaper out of his pocket, unfolded it furtively and read through the article again. Then he tossed it into the waste bin and wiped his hands on a paper napkin drawn from the metal dispenser on the counter. Whoever would have thought it? After all these years.
If it hadn't been for the postcards, he himself might have succeeded in forgetting by now. Apart from that time some Communist journalist had come around asking about Leonardo under the pretext of wanting to buy a book. But Gabriele had got rid of him in short order.
The series of postcards had begun the year after Gabriele had resigned his commission. Since then, they had arrived annually wherever he happened to be living at the time, all sent from Rome and postmarked on the anniversary of the day Leonardo had died. Since 1993, they had arrived at the shop. They were always the same, a cheap tourist postcard of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence showing Cellini's bronze statue of Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa. Gabriele's name and address were printed on the right-hand side of the reverse. The space intended for the message had been left blank.
'We'd better get going,' said one of the men at the bar. 'They'll be waiting for us.'
And they would be waiting for him, thought Gabriele. If not today, then tomorrow. If not at work, then at home. What made it worse was that he had no idea who 'they' were. Medusa was something he had put behind him long ago. He had even had the tattoo removed, a surgical intervention which had cost him quite a lot of money and some minor discomfort. All he had ever known about the organization had been the other three names in his cell, but there must of course have been many more besides theirs, and above all an over-arching command structure which no doubt reached up very far indeed into the military and political hierarchy. He had learned from an article in the press some years before that Alberto now Colonel Guerrazzi was now someone very high up in the secret services. Those people had unimaginable powers. If they felt threatened, as they undoubtedly must, by the potential disclosure of the truth behind Leonardo's death, their response was likely to be immediate, pre-emptive, and totally unpredictable.
Outside, the fog was as persistent as ever. Gabriele dodged into the first doorway he came to and glanced back. No one emerged from the café he had just left. He walked slowly on, head down, seemingly intent on keeping his footing and avoiding obstacles. A chirpy clanging announced the arrival of another tram. It ground to a halt at the stop where he normally got off every morning. He waited until the group of commuters had dispersed and then inspected the street carefully. The row of shops on the ground floor of the big eighteenth-century palazzo was beginning to open. They were mainly fashion and accessory outlets, with a jeweller's, a hair salon and his own antiquarian bookshop interspersed. There were very few people about, and no conspicuous watchers, but he knew that that meant nothing. Realizing that he was rapidly becoming conspicuous himself, he turned left and started to walk around the block.
I'm no good at this, he thought. Never had been, never would be. He'd tried hard, he really had, but do what he might he'd never been a natural like Alberto, Nestore and poor Leonardo. 'Not really officer material.' He'd never forgotten that comment. It had stung, even though an officer was the last thing he'd wanted to be, if he'd been honest with himself. And it had made no difference. Strings were pulled and buttons pushed, and he got his commission just the same, thanks to the influence of his father, who of course had never let him forget the fact.
But that martinet at the military academy had been right. He wasn't officer material. He could follow orders as faithfully as a dog, but he couldn't give them in such a way as to inspire the same unthinking obedience in others. Or even in himself. Above all, he lacked the initiative to improvise successfully when things got tough and there was no superior around to tell him what to do. Such as now.
What was he to do? Where was he to go? He hadn't spoken to his sister for months, and anyway they'd find him there easily enough. The same went for his few close friends, even supposing he could impose on them without explanation. A trip abroad was tempting, but that meant credit cards and identification and all the rest of it, a paper trail that could be traced. What he really needed to do was just disappear until the situation resolved itself.
He strode on with fake purposefulness through the eddying currents. When another café loomed up, he turned into it blindly and ordered a whisky. Gabriele rarely drank, and never before lunch. He knocked the foul-tasting spirit back like medicine, staring at his image in the mirror behind the bar, surprised as always by his sturdy, wiry body and determined gaze. He always thought of himself as tiny, weedy, frail and terminally inadequate. The joke that life had played on him was putting such a personality inside the body of a professional welter-weight boxer. It had saved him from getting beaten up at school, and later at the academy, but even those victories felt hollow, won by deceit. And the women in his life, unlike the men, had never been fooled. On the contrary, they had loved him, those few who had lasted longer than a week or two, precisely for the weakness they had so perceptively diagnosed. For a while it had seemed sweet to be mothered again, but in the end it felt like another defeat.
Besides, they had all wanted to be real mothers, and he had no intention of collaborating in a re-run of that sad sorry farce. Hippolyte Taine, whose collected works Gabriele was currently reading, had as usual got it ruthlessly right: 'Three weeks flirting, three months loving, three years squabbling, thirty years making do, and then the kids start again.' He wasn't going to let that happen to him. Besides, it might turn out to be a boy. He'd had enough of father-and-son routines to last him several lifetimes. The women had sensed this and moved on, and by now Gabriele had lost all interest in the whole business. If you didn't want children, what was the point? At his age, sex seemed a bit disgusting and stupid, and the present cultural obsession with it depressing and sick. According to various comments that his mother had let slip from time to time, this was at least one thing that he had in common with his father.
The café was starting to fill up now. It was small and rather seedy for this area, and the clientele was very different from that at the previous establishment: tradesmen, street sweepers, delivery drivers, city cops, pensioners, janitors . . .
It took another moment before the penny dropped, and when it did Gabriele had enough sense not to use his mobile. The café's pay phone was at the rear of the establishment, in an overflow zone where the tables and chairs began to peter out and be replaced by stacks of mineral water cases, cardboard boxes of crisps, unused advertising materials and a broken ice-cream freezer with its lid up. On the wall nearby hung a framed black-and-white aerial photograph of a small town somewhere in the alluvial flatlands to the south, Crema or Lodi perhaps. It must have been taken shortly after the war, for there was still little extensive development outside the walls, just a few suburban villas and the railway station. After that the vast plains spread away, faintly lined with dirt roads and dotted at intervals with isolated cascine, the rectangular complexes of clustered farm buildings characteristic of the Po valley.
He stood there, phone in hand, staring up at the photograph. Eventually the dialling tone changed to an angry whine. Gabriele hung up, fed in a coin and redialled. He knew what to do now, and it could be done.
'Fulvio, it's Gabriele Passarini.'
'Listen, you remember that time, years ago, when I locked myself out of the shop?'
A brief laugh.
'It's happened again?'
'It's happened again. And I want you to do the same thing you did last time. Do you understand?'
'You mean go down to . . .'
'Yes, yes! Exactly what you did last time. I'll be waiting.'
There was a pause. When Fulvio finally spoke, he sounded flustered, perhaps by the intensity in Gabriele's voice.
'Very well, dottore. I'm up to my ears with work this morning, but . . .'
'I'll make it worth your while.'
He hung up, wiped his palms on his coat and returned to the bar, where he ordered and downed a coffee and then paid his bill before leaving the café.
Fulvio was waiting for him just inside the doorway. The janitor was a lean, stooping man whose perpetual expression of amazement, due to the loss of his eyebrows in an industrial accident, gave him a slightly gormless air. In fact, Fulvio was the intermediary, when not the instigator, behind everything that happened in the building. Gabriele had recognized this early on, and had always taken good care to ensure that Fulvio was aware that he both understood and appreciated the situation: a panettone from one of the city's best pastry shops every Christmas, some chocolates for his wife on her birthday, the occasional but satisfyingly large tip now and again.