Numero zero

  As we left, I took a deep breath and asked him, “But you’ve checked it all out?”

  “I’ve spoken to well-informed people and I’ve sought the advice of our colleague Lucidi. Perhaps you don’t know he has links with the secret services.”

  “I know, I know. But do you trust him?”

  “They’re people used to keeping their silence, don’t worry. I need a few more days to gather other cast-iron evidence—cast-iron, I say—then I’ll go to Simei and present him with the results of my investigation. Twelve installments for twelve zero issues.”

  That evening, to forget about the bones at San Bernardino, I took Maia out for a candlelight dinner. I didn’t of course mention Gladio, I avoided dishes that involved taking anything off the bone, and was slowly emerging from my afternoon ordeal.


  Saturday, June 6

  BRAGGADOCIO SPENT SEVERAL days that week putting together his scoop and the whole of Thursday morning hunkered down with Simei in his office. They reemerged around eleven o’clock, with Simei commending him, “Check the information once again, thoroughly. I don’t want any risks.”

  “Don’t worry,” replied Braggadocio, radiating high spirits and optimism. “This evening I’m meeting someone I can trust. I’ll do one last check.”

  Meanwhile the news team were all busily arranging the regular pages for the first zero issue: sports, Palatino’s games, letters of denial, horoscopes, and death notices.

  “No matter how much we invent,” said Costanza at one point, “I’ll bet you we won’t manage to fill even those twenty-four pages. We need more news.”

  “All right,” said Simei. “Perhaps you can lend a hand, Colonna.”

  “News doesn’t need to be invented,” I said. “All you have to do is recycle it.”


  “People have short memories. Taking an absurd example, everyone should know that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March, but memories get muddled. Take a biography recently published in Britain that reexamines the whole story, and all you have to do is come up with a sensational headline, such as ‘Spectacular Discovery by Cambridge Historians: Julius Caesar really assassinated on Ides of March,’ you retell the whole story, and turn it into a thoroughly enjoyable article. Now, the Caesar story is something of an exaggeration, I grant you, but if you talk about the Pio Albergo Trivulzio affair, here you can produce an article along the lines of the Banca Romana collapse. That happened at the end of the nineteenth century and has nothing to do with the present scandals, but one scandal leads to another, all you have to do is refer to rumors, and you’ve got the story of the Banca Romana business as if it happened yesterday. I bet Lucidi would know how to pull a good article out of it.”

  “Excellent,” said Simei. “What is it, Cambria?”

  “I see an agency report here, another statue of the Madonna crying in a village down south.”

  “Terrific, you can turn that into a sensational story!”

  “Superstitions all over again—”

  “No! We’re not a newsletter for the atheistic and rationalist crowd. People want miracles, not trendy skepticism. Writing about a miracle doesn’t mean compromising ourselves by saying the newspaper believes it. We recount what’s happened, or say that someone has witnessed it. Whether these Virgins actually cry is none of our business. Readers must draw their own conclusions, and if they’re believers, they’ll believe it. With a headline over several columns.”

  Everyone worked away in great excitement. I passed Maia’s desk, where she was concentrating on the death notices, and said, “And don’t forget, ‘Family bereft—’”

  “‘—and good friend Filiberto shares the grief of beloved Matilde and dearest children Mario and Serena,’” she replied.

  “You have to keep up with the times—the new Italian names are Jessyka with a y or Samanta without the h, and even Sue Ellen, written ‘Sciuellen.’” I gave her a smile of encouragement and moved on.

  I spent the evening at Maia’s place, succeeding, as happened now and then, in making a cozy love nest out of that bleak den piled with precarious towers of books.

  Among the piles were many classical records, vinyl inherited from her grandparents. Sometimes we lay there for hours listening. That evening Maia put on Beethoven’s Seventh, and she told me, her eyes brimming with tears, how ever since her adolescence, the second movement would make her cry. “It started when I was sixteen. I had no money, and thanks to someone I knew, I managed to slip into a concert without paying, except that I had no seat, so I squatted down on the steps in the upper balcony, and little by little I found myself almost lying down. The wood was hard, but I didn’t feel a thing. And during the second movement I thought that’s how I’d like to die, and burst into tears. I was crazy then, but I went on crying even after I’d grown up.”

  I had never cried listening to music, but was moved by the fact that she did. After several minutes’ silence, Maia said, “He was a fruitcake.” He who? But Schumann, of course, said Maia, as if I had become distracted. Her autism, as usual.

  “Schumann a fruitcake?”

  “Yes, loads of romantic outpouring, what you’d expect for that period, but all too cerebral. And by straining his brain he went mad. I can see why his wife fell in love with Brahms. Another temperament, other music, and a bon vivant. Mind you, I’m not saying Robert was bad, I’m sure he had talent, he wasn’t one of those blusterers.”


  “Like that bumptious Liszt, or the rambunctious Rachmaninoff. They wrote some terrible music, all stuff for effect, for making money, Concerto for Goons in C Major, things like that. If you look, you’ll find none of their records in that pile. I dumped them. They’d have been better off as farm hands.”

  “But who do you think is better than Liszt?”

  “Satie, no?”

  “But you don’t cry over Satie, do you?”

  “Of course not, he wouldn’t have wanted it, I only cry over the second movement of the Seventh.” Then, after a moment’s pause, “I also cry over some Chopin, since my adolescence. Not his concertos, of course.”

  “Why not his concertos?”

  “Because if you took him away from the piano and put him in front of an orchestra, he would have no idea where he was. He wrote piano parts for strings, brass, even drums. And then, have you seen that film with Cornel Wilde playing Chopin and splashing a drop of blood on the keyboard? What would have happened if he’d conducted an orchestra? He’d have splashed blood on the first violin.”

  Maia never ceased to amaze me, even when I thought I knew her well. With her, I would have learned to appreciate music. Her way, in any case.

  It was our last evening of happiness. Yesterday I woke late and didn’t get to the office until late morning. As I entered, I could see men in uniform searching through Braggadocio’s drawers and a plainclothesman questioning those present. Simei stood sallow-faced at the door of his office.

  Cambria approached, speaking softly, as if he had some secret to tell: “They’ve killed Braggadocio.”

  “What? Braggadocio? How?”

  “A night watchman was returning home on his bike this morning at six and saw a body lying face-down, wounded in the back. At that hour it took him some time to find a bar that was open so he could telephone for an ambulance and the police. One stab wound, that’s what the police doctor found right away, just one, but inflicted with force. No sign of the knife.”


  “In an alleyway around Via Torino, what’s it called . . . Via Bagnara, or Bagnera.”

  The plainclothesman introduced himself. He was a police inspector and asked when I had last seen Braggadocio. “Here in the office, yesterday,” I replied, “like all my colleagues, I suspect. Then I think he went off alone, just before the others.”

  He asked how I had spent my evening, as I imagine he’d done with the rest. I said I’d had supper with a friend and then gone straight to bed. Clearly I d
idn’t have an alibi, but it seems none of those present had one either, and the inspector didn’t seem overly concerned. It was just a routine question, as they say on TV cop shows.

  He was more interested in whether Braggadocio had any enemies, whether he was pursuing dangerous inquiries. I was hardly about to tell him everything, not because there was anyone I was anxious to protect, but I was beginning to realize that if someone had bumped off Braggadocio, it had to do with his investigations. And I had the sudden feeling that if I’d shown even the smallest sign of knowing anything, I too might be worth getting rid of. I mustn’t tell the police, I thought. Hadn’t Braggadocio told me that everyone was implicated in his stories, including the Forestry Rangers? And though I’d regarded him as a crank until yesterday, his death now assured him a certain credibility.

  I was sweating. The inspector didn’t seem to notice, or perhaps he put it down to momentary distress.

  “I’m not sure what Braggadocio was up to these past few days,” I said. “Maybe Dottor Simei can tell you, he assigns the articles. I think he was working on something to do with prostitution. I don’t know if that’s of any help.”

  “We shall see,” said the inspector, and he moved on to question Maia, who was crying. She had no love for Braggadocio, I thought, but murder is murder. Poor dear. I felt sorry not for Braggadocio but for Maia—she’d probably be feeling guilty for speaking ill of him.

  At that moment Simei motioned me to his office. “Colonna,” he said, sitting down at his desk, his hands trembling, “you know what Braggadocio was working on.”

  “I do and I don’t. He mentioned something, but I’m not sure that—”

  “Colonna, don’t beat around the bush, you know perfectly well that Braggadocio was stabbed because he was about to reveal important information. Now I don’t know what was true and what he invented, though it’s clear that if his inquiry covered a hundred stories, he must have gotten to the truth on at least one of them, and that is why he was silenced. But since he told me all of it yesterday, it means I also know that one story, though I don’t know which it is. And since he told me that he told you, you know it too. So we’re both in danger. To make matters worse, two hours ago I got a call from Commendator Vimercate. He didn’t say who told him, or what he’d been told, but Vimercate found out that the entire Domani venture was too dangerous even for him, so he decided to shut the whole thing down. He’s sent me checks for journalists—they’ll each get an envelope with two months’ salary and a few words of thanks. None of them had a contract, so they can’t complain. Vimercate didn’t know you were in danger as well, but I think you might find it difficult to go around banking a check, so I’m tearing it up—I have some money in hand, your pay packet will contain two months’ in cash. The offices will be dismantled by tomorrow evening. As for us two, you can forget our agreement, your little job, the book you were going to write. Domani is being axed, right now. Even with the newspaper shut, you and I know too much.”

  “I think Braggadocio told Lucidi as well.”

  “You haven’t understood a thing, have you. That was where he went wrong. Lucidi sniffed out that our dear departed friend was handling something dangerous and went straight off to report it. To whom? I don’t know, but certainly to someone who decided that Braggadocio knew too much. No one’s going to hurt Lucidi, he’s on the other side of the barricade, but they might harm us. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. As soon as the police are out of here, I’m putting the rest of the cash in my bag, shooting straight down to the station, and taking the first train for Switzerland. With no luggage. I know someone there who can change a person’s identity, new name, new passport, new residence—we’ll have to work out where. I’m disappearing before Braggadocio’s killers can find me. I hope I’ll beat them to it. And I’ve asked Vimercate to pay me in dollars on Credit Suisse. As for you, I don’t know what to suggest, but first of all, don’t go wandering the streets, lock yourself up at home. Then find a way of disappearing, I’d choose eastern Europe, where stay-behind didn’t exist.”

  “But you think it’s all to do with stay-behind? That’s already in the public domain. Or perhaps the business about Mussolini? That’s so outlandish no one would believe it.”

  “And the Vatican? Even if the story wasn’t true, it would still end up in the papers that the Church had covered up Mussolini’s escape in 1945 and had sheltered him for nearly fifty years. With all the troubles they already have down there with Sindona, Calvi, Marcinkus, and the rest, before they’ve managed to prove the Mussolini business a hoax, the scandal would be all over the international press. Trust no one, Colonna, lock yourself up at home, tonight at least, then think about getting away. You’ve enough to live on for a few months. And if you go, let’s say, to Romania, it costs nothing there, and with the twelve million lire in this envelope you could live like a lord for some time. After that, well, you can see. Goodbye, Colonna, I’m sorry things have ended this way. It’s like that joke our Maia told about the cowboy at Abilene: Too bad, we’ve lost. If you’ll excuse me, I’d better get ready to leave as soon as the police have gone.”

  I wanted to get out of there right away, but that damned inspector went on questioning us, getting nowhere fast. Meanwhile evening fell.

  I walked past Lucidi’s desk as he was opening his envelope. “Have you received your just reward?” I asked, and he clearly understood what I was referring to.

  He looked me up and down and asked, “What did Braggadocio tell you?”

  “I know he was following some line of inquiry, but he wouldn’t tell me exactly what.”

  “Really?” he said. “Poor devil, who knows what he’s been up to.” And then he turned away.

  Once the inspector had said I could leave, with the usual warning to remain available for further questioning, I whispered to Maia, “Go home. Wait there until I phone you, probably not before tomorrow morning.”

  She looked at me, terrified. “But how are you involved in all this?”

  “I’m not, I’m not, what are you thinking, I’m just upset.”

  “Tell me what’s going on. They’ve given me an envelope with a check and many thanks for my invaluable services.”

  “They’re closing the newspaper. I’ll explain later.”

  “Why not tell me now?”

  “Tomorrow, I swear I’ll tell you everything. You stay safe at home. Just do as I say, please.”

  She listened, her eyes welling with tears. And I left without saying another word.

  I spent the evening at home, eating nothing, draining half a bottle of whiskey, and thinking what to do next. I felt exhausted, took a sleeping pill, and fell asleep.

  And this morning, no water in the tap.


  Saturday, June 6, Noon

  There. Now I’ve told it all. Let me try to make sense of it. Who are “they”? That’s what Simei said, that Braggadocio had pieced together a number of facts, correctly or incorrectly. Which of these facts could worry somebody? The business about Mussolini? And in that case, who had the guilty conscience? The Vatican? Or perhaps conspirators in the Borghese plot who still held authority (though after twenty years they all must be dead), or the secret services (which?). Or perhaps not. Perhaps it was just some old Fascist who’s haunted by the past and acted alone, perhaps getting pleasure from threatening Vimercate, as though he had—who knows?—the Sacra Corona Unita behind him. A nutcase, then, but if a nutcase is trying to do away with you, he’s just as dangerous as someone who’s sane, and more so. For example, whether it’s “they” or some lone nutcase, someone entered my house last night. And having gotten in once, they or he could get in a second time. So I’d better not stay here. But then, is this nutcase or are these “they” so sure I know something? Did Braggadocio say anything about me to Lucidi? Maybe not, or not much, judging from my last exchange of remarks with that sneak. But can I feel safe? Certainly not. It’s a long step, though, between that and escaping to Romania—best to see wha
t happens, read the newspapers tomorrow. If they don’t mention the killing of Braggadocio, things are worse than I imagine—it means someone’s trying to hush it all up. I’ve got to hide at least for a while. But where? Right now it would be dangerous to stick my nose outside.

  I thought about Maia and her hideaway at Orta. My affair with Maia has passed, I think, unnoticed, and she shouldn’t be under surveillance. She no, but my telephone yes, so I can’t telephone her from home, and to telephone from outside means I have to go out.

  It occurred to me that there was a back entrance, from the courtyard below, through the toilets, to the local bar. I also remembered a metal gate at the far end of the courtyard that had been locked for decades. My landlord had told me about it when he handed me the keys to the apartment. Along with the key to the main entrance and the landing door, there was another one, old and rusty. “You’ll never need it,” said the landlord with a smile, “but every tenant has had one for the past fifty years. We had no air-raid shelter here during the war, you see, and there was a fairly large one in the house behind, on Via Quarto dei Mille, the road that runs parallel to ours. So a passageway was opened up at the far end of the courtyard for families to reach the shelter quickly if the alarm sounded. The gate has remained locked from both sides, but each of our tenants had a key, and as you see, in almost fifty years it’s become rusty. I don’t suppose you’ll ever need it, but that gate is also a good escape route in the event of fire. You can put the key in a drawer, if you wish, and forget about it.”

  That’s what I had to do. I went downstairs and into the bar through the back door. The manager knows me, and I’ve done it before. I looked around. Hardly anyone there in the morning. Just an elderly couple sitting at a table with two cappuccinos and two croissants, and they didn’t look like secret agents. I ordered a double coffee—I still wasn’t properly awake—and went to the telephone booth. Maia answered immediately in great agitation, and I told her to keep calm and listen.

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